Emile Berliner; An Unheralded Genius Part II - The Later Years

Fact Paper 27-II

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

image of Emile Berliner
EMILE BERLINER broadcasting over his invention, the microphone. Berliner employed the radio and distributed free educational literature on "scalding" milk to reduce the scourge of deadly diseases that killed one third of all children. Berliner persisted in his campaign despite the opposition of medical societies over a quarter of a century. In between his fight for public health ans women's rights Berliner found time to invent the helicopter and make a series of inventions and innovations in aeronautics. Illustration from Frederick Wile, Emile Berliner, Inventor of the Microphone.

Emile Berliner Introduces the Telephone to Europe

Emile Berliner's unsavory experiences with American business men led him back several times to Europe to take advantage of his creations. He first returned to Germany in the summer of 1881.

Eleven years had passed since he last saw his mother and brothers. Only his younger brother, Joseph, had followed him to the USA. Joseph apprenticed in a telephone manufacturing plant, and completed his training in the evenings under the guidance of his brother and one of his brother's personal assistants, an English mechanic.

Emile Berliner formed the Telephon-Fabrik J. Berliner in Germany. The J. stood for both his older brother, Jacob, and for Joseph, brought back from America to be the technical administrator. Jacob, who had founded a small tanning factory, became the business manager of the new firm. "So the Hanover lad paved the way for the telephone transmitter or microphone in the Old World as he had done in the New."1

Eight years later, in 1888, Berliner again returned triumphantly to Europe to lecture on and demonstrate his gramophone. Berliner received a hero's welcome. He had become famous in Germany and France. He had attained renown not only because the scientific community acclaimed him as the inventor of the microphone, transformer and telephone, but also because his brothers had so successfully marketed the telephone. The production and distribution of the telephone had become a highly remunerative enterprise. The news about Emile Berliner's next invention, the gramophone, placed the scientific community in eager anticipation of the arrival of its inventor.

Berliner first received an enthusiastic welcome at the Hanover Institute of Technology. The German patent Office then invited him to display his gramophone. The exhibit made such a profound impression that the Commissioner of Patents asked him to repeat it before a group of distinguished engineers and scientists. The Electro-technical Society of Berlin invited him to lecture at their meeting in November 1889, where, ironically, a demonstration of an Edison phonograph was being featured. Emile was called to the podium, and his exposition of the merits of his instrument "To this day remains a standard contribution to German scientific literature and part of the official history of the talking machine."2

The great Helmholz, on whom the Emperor had bestowed the title Excellenz, came personally to Berliner's apartment along with a bevy of distinguished scientists for a soirée of listening to his gramophone. The mechanism, that employed etched zinc discs for sound reproduction at the time, was recognized by the scientific community as unquestionably far superior to Edison's device and its use of wax cylinders. Most gratifying was Emile Berliner's appearance before the Technical Society of Frankfort-on-the-Mein, the same group of physicists before whom Phillip Reis had demonstrated his telephon twenty-two years earlier!

Emile Berliner, Composer

Emil Berliner's fascination with sound doubtless began in his teens when he was taking piano and violin lessons. In his biography, Wile states that "he was something more than a proficient amateur at the piano and the violin. He still plays both of those instruments."3

Clearly the love of music never left Berliner. He joined the New York Oratorio Society, founded by Leopold Damrosch in the 1870's, and sang baritone roles in he Messiah, Elijah, and in Samson.

Berliner also turned his genius to composing. He expressed his love for America and the opportunities it had afforded him in a patriotic song which became a smash hit of its day: The Columbian Anthem. The song debuted in Washington on Washington's birthday at the 1897 national council of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The song immediately took hold. It was next presented on Flag Day with a full chorus and orchestra at the Lafayette Square Opera House in Washington. Schools in the National Capitol and New York made the singing of the anthem part of their curriculum. The United States Marine Band featured it in their programs. The Columbian Anthem opened the program under the famous conductor Professor Fanciulli at a White House garden party of President and Mrs. McKinley.

Berliner's composition may well have become the new National Anthem. Commenting on its presentation at the White House concert, the Baltimore American wrote:

"Considering that this country has not a national melody other than those borrowed from Europe, the Columbian Anthem of Emile Berliner has a good chance some day to be selected as our national melody. It is remarkable for its stately dignity, and has within it that patriotic stir and catchiness bound to make it popular.... As a composition [it] ranks easily with the best national hymns ever written."4

Berliner turned his attention to the violin. It is well known that antique violins are consistently more brilliant over their entire range than new instruments. Berliner determined that the new instrument did not vibrate freely because the fibers of the wood under the bridge took much time to adjust to the uneven pressures transmitted by the strings through the bridge to the instruments body.

As a violin is played upon and ages, the wood fibers gradually adjust to these uneven pressures. Berliner therefore developed a new method of stringing directly to the body. Several instrumentalists, among whom were Leopold Damrosch and the then well-known violinist Camilla Urso adopted Berliner's instrument. But the Berliner violin never became popular because "violinists were inclined to look upon any radical departure in the stringing of the violin as heresy."5

Berliner did succeed, however, in improving the acoustics of concert halls and indeed, of all architectural spaces, including the home. He was an inveterate theater-goer, and the acoustical inadequacies of various halls disturbed him. He refused to accept the current architectural philosophy of the day, expressed to him by an architect on one occasion:

"Acoustics has always been a gamble," argued the architect.

"You're right," Berliner replied, "and as I am against gambling, I want to stop this!"

Busy with his other activities, Berliner nonetheless launched into a twenty-years-long study of hall acoustics. The "acoustic tiles" and "acoustic cement" he developed were, once more, groundbreaking innovations. He presented his solution for the baffling problem of hall acoustics at a meeting of the American Institute of Architects in Washington on October 8, 1925.

Emile Berliner and Public Health

Emile Berliner among children of a public health class, which contained pupils in the early stages of tuberculosis. From Frederick Wile, Emile Berliner, Inventor of the Microphone

Berliner's genius was not confined to acoustics. When his daughter, Alice. died in 1890 of a gastro-intestinal disorder, he turned his talents to medical research. In the nineteenth century, infants were suffering a devastating 30% mortality rate. Berliner, convinced that many infant's diseases were caused by the ingestion of raw milk, founded the "Society for the Prevention of Sickness" in 1891 and launched a widespread campaign for "scalding" milk before its ingestion. The first of a weekly series of "health bulletins" promoting the "scalding of milk" was published in the Washington Post of June 15, 1901.

Berliner's intensive campaign was opposed by the medical profession over many years!

The American Pediatric Society was the most strident about its opposition to scalding milk, claiming that children who drink it would contract scurvy and rickets! Berliner persisted in his campaign. Every bulletin he issued ended with the slogan "Scald the milk, and keep it cool and covered thereafter."

"In addition to stigmatizing pure milk, the bulletins of the Society for the Prevention of Sickness pointed out the dangers of ice cream, butter, and dairy products made from non-pasteurized milk and cream. This voluntary, popularized propaganda, systematically and efficiently conducted under Berliner's personal direction, supplied the people of the National Capitol with a liberal education in the science of health."6

The persistent propaganda, and emerging facts about pasteurization stirred some doctors to take notice. In 1906, a former surgeon-general of the U.S. Army, Brigadier-General George M. Sternberg created a milk committee and made Emile Berliner its chairman.

Berliner wasted no time. In 1907 he organized the first milk conference in Washington, D.C. about pasteurization and quality controls over the production of milk. The issue of the contamination of milk by traces of dung from tubercular cows was ascribed a significant cause of tuberculosis in people. The conference resulted in the adoption of milk standards by the Federal Government.

The American Pediatric Society opposed the measure!

Another milk conference initiated by New York City's health department adopted similar standards to those set at Washington. "When Professor von Pirquet, the renowned child-hygienist of the University of Vienna, visited Washington, Berliner was told that his gospel of safe milk for healthy children had spread to Europe and was universally acclaimed.

Resistance to "scalding" milk persisted. Emile Berliner also persisted. He published Twelve Rules for Health, and distributed free twenty-five thousand copies to schools. The Rules were written in single syllable words., and Berliner also converted them into nursery rhymes. One of his most effective nursery rhymes was widely recited by children in their games:

"When milk is raw just from the farm
It's full of germs which may do harm;
But safe it is and highly prized
When it is boiled or pasteurized.
Ice-cream, cheese, and butter-fat
Come from milk - you all know that.
Made from raw milk, we can see
They might harm both you and me."7

In 1920 Berliner endowed a silver cup as an annual award by the Tuberculosis Association to the city whose school children were most engaged in his health crusade. President Harding presented the award in 1921 to the school children of Washington D.C.

That same year, together with Doctor Alfred J. Steinberg, Berliner wrote and published The Bottle-Fed Baby, a guide for young mothers on the healthy rearing of their babies. Every new mother was entitled to a free copy, and in the next five years, over fifty thousand copies of the guide were distributed.

"The Medical Society protested Berliner's gratis circulation of the guide, on the ground that it gave young mothers so much and so sound advice on the rearing of infants that it was almost as potent as an apple a day - it kept the doctor away."8 Undeterred by the Medical Society's's opposition, Berliner wrote, published and distributed a dozen more works on children's health..9

Finally, in 1925, Berliner was instrumental in securing the passage of a milk law standards bill for the District of Columbia. It was the beginning of a nation-wide series of laws applying the principles Berliner had first proposed in 1901. It had taken the medical profession a quarter of a century to recognize the validity of Berliner's health rules.

"Had Berliner never touched the telephone or the talking machine," Wile concludes, "his health work should secure his claim to the gratitude of his era and of eras to come.

It is no exaggeration to state that hundreds of thousands of children's lives were saved by Berliner's heroic, steadfast, selfless campaign.

Crusader for Women's Rights

Emile Berliner long held, in contrast to the supercilious opinions of the bulk of scientists of his time, that erudite and creative women like Madame Curie were no exception. He argued that women, given the opportunities for education equal to men, would equal them in the sciences.

In 1908 he founded amd subsidized the "Sarah Berliner Research Fellowship." Mrs. Christine Ladd Franklin, the first woman to earn a doctor's degree at Johns Hopkins University, was a charter member, and Berliner also obtained the cooperation of the American Association of University Women. The fellowship was made available for research in physics, chemistry or biology. From 1909 to 1926 awards were given to women each year in those fields as well as in psychology, physiology, paleontology, geology, nutrition, zoology and related subjects.

In 1926 Professor Agnes L. Rogers of Bryn Mawr College lauded Emile Berliner for his devotion to women's equality in the sciences: "Mr. Berliner's foundation was one of the first, if not the first, fellowships for women in the United States, and the very first designated for science... It should be remembered that Mr. Berliner made this fellowship available when women's position in colleges and universities was far from being so assured as now."10

Emile Berliner's interests and philanthropies extended to his support of the rebuilding of Palestine and his very active support of Hebrew University.


The home of Emile Berliner at 1458 Columbia Road in Washington from 1884-1924. Berliner invented the gramophone and lateral-cut discs in this house. The house was also the headquarters from which Berliner conducted his campaigns for public health, for women's rights, and developed aeronautical innovations, including the invention of the helicopter.
From Frederick Wile,
Emile Berliner, Inventor of the Microphone

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Emile Berliner and the Helicopter

Frederic Wile's biography of Berliner ends in 1926 without mention of Berliner's interest in manned flight. Berliner had not merely delved deeply into that exciting prospect at the beginning of the twentieth century, but had made revolutionary advances in it. Berliner's indefatigable involvements with his inventions of the microphone, telephone and gramophone, with his research and discoveries in acoustics, with his personal involvement in the field of public health, and with his philanthropic endeavors in both public health and women's rights, all these activities did not deter him from breaking new ground in a totally unrelated field, aeronautics.

Nor has anyone else, to date, properly chronicled the significant contributions that Berliner, alone and later with his son, Henry, made to aeronautics!

This hiatus in Wile's biography is all the more mysterious when account is taken of the fact that, as the Encyclopedia Brittanica attests, it was early as 1908 that Emile Berliner "designed a lightweight internal combustion motor that became a widely imitated prototype for aircraft. Under Emile's supervision, his son, Henry Berliner, designed a helicopter that flew successfully as early as 1919." 11

Even stranger is the fact that the Brittanica overlooks the earlier production in 1907 by Emile Berliner of a prototype of the helicopter flown by his son 12 years later!12 The successful launching that took place is but one of the significant advances in aeronautics made by Berliner that day. It was the first time rotary motors were used on an aircraft. 13

Another machine soon followed, with a more powerful rotary motor. The two machines, were, therefore, the true precursors of the helicopter. We take note that Emile Berliner constructed these mechanisms in the same year that he organized the milk conference in Washington! These machines are, in fact, listed in the 1909 issue of the renowned Jane's as the "first helicopters," with a note that a parachute was carried "for emergencies."

As in the case of the telephone and the gramophone, and notwithstanding the authoritative statements of Jane's and the Encyclopedia Britan1ica, no one person can truly be given all the credit for the creation of the helicopter. Many would-be inventors were attempting to bring to reality the dream of being able to mechanically rise to the skies from anywhere, and then fly to and land anywhere. That said, the record shows that, nonetheless, it was Emile Berliner who must be credited for the persistance to follow through on the invention of the helicopter to the point at which it became a viable vehicle for vertical lift-off, followed by sustainable lateral flight and a vertical landing

Properly, one should go back in time to credit Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) for conceiving a helicopter. Da Vinci devoted much of his time to the study of birds in flight, and wrote about and illustrated many of its principles. It could also be said the first helicopter was designed by Da Vinci, albeit he never made a physical model of a mechanism that sported a distinctive "whirlybird" (albeit hand-operated) rotor.

"There shall be wings!" exclaimed Da Vinci about the year 1505 in his mirror writing. "If the accomplishment be not for me, 'tis for some other. The spirit cannot die; and man shall know all things and have wings."

That "spirit" revived in two Frenchmen, Breuget and Cornu, who first rose a few feet into the air on precursors of the helicopter. On August 24, 1907, Breguet sat in the framework of a mechanism and flew. Those who credit Breguet with the first "manned" fight should, however, honestly add that four aides "guided" the "manned" flight from the ground.

Three months later, On November 13, 1907, Cornu flew a few feet without any assistance from the ground.

As we noted above, Berliner's unique rotary-engined mechanism likewise flew a few meters that same year. The flight took place August 1, 1907, somewhat before either of the French events. Most meaningful about the comparison of these events, however, was the fact that Breguet and Cornu abandoned their experiments, whereas Berliner kept Da Vinci's "spirit" alive.14

Berliner went on experimenting with new designs and new mechanisms in model after model and year after year. Berliner next produced a two-engine, two-bladed machine. On June 26, 1909 the mechanism lifted an associate, Williams, off the ground in a tethered flight.15

Leonardo Da Vinci's design of a man-driven helicopter.
Emile Berliner's experimental helicopter, 1920.
Photograph courtesy of Historia,(see notes for web site)

So far, all that anyone had achieved was a limited lift-off from the ground by a mechanism with a man aboard. The goal of manned flight is clearly not merely the ability to rise from and return to the ground, but controlled lateral motion while airborne. Balloons had already proven an ability to lift a man straight up off the earth and return him to it. The ability and direction of balloon travel, unfortunately, were dependant on the mercy of the winds.

Emile Berliner continued to experiment until a viable result was successfully achieved. At first he proceeded alone, and later he was joined by son, Henry. On June 10, 1920, a platform, outfitted with two rotors above the pilot's seat, not only soared straight up, but traveled forward for a measurable distance. Thus, after a dozen years of experimental gestation, the first true helicopter was born.

Emile and Henry Berliner were its creators.

"Continuing experiments produced the first helicopter to achieve controlled forward flight. -- [Berliner outfitted] a war surplus Nieuport biplane fighter with tilting tail rotor, and a short-span upper wing with 14'0" helicopter blades at the tips."16 In outfitting the biplane with a tilting tail rotor, Berliner once again broke new ground and set a standard for all that followed. The tilting tail rotor stabilized flight and facilitated directional steering. The two counter-rotating main rotors were controlled by differential braking, yet another Berliner innovation. The helicopter was able to manoeuver in all directions and obtain a forward speed of about 40 mph.

In 1922, Henry Adler Berliner, with the backing and guidance of his father, founded an aircraft company in Pennsylvania which marketed a two-seat touring plane. In addition to pioneering designs of new conventional aircraft, the Berliner Aircraft Company "experimented with early rotorcraft patents."17

While Emile Berliner looked on with pride, his son Henry made a successful demonstration flight of an improved helicopter at College Park, Maryland on June 16, 1922.18 "[The] Berliner helicopter rose 12 feet and hovered before military observers at College Park, Md.19

Emile Berliner's "Helicoplane," featuring a number of inventions and innovations: Twin counter-rotating main rotors controlled by differential braking; A radial engine; A tilting tail rotor. Photograph courtesy of Phil Callihan at http://www.philc.noms.org/
The first Ercoupe in flight.
Photograph courtesy of Ercoupe FAQS (See notes for web site)
The first jet-assisted take-off, made with an Ercoupe at Wright Field in 1941. Photograph courtesy of Ercoupe FAQS (See notes for web site)

Aviation Timeline attests that the occasion was significant not merely because lateral flight was being demonstrated but that the demonstration included a Emile Berliner "first": "The Berliner helicopter introduced the use of a tilting tail rotor."20

A triplane version followed. On February 23, 1923, it demonstrated its ability to fly. It rose fifteen feet and remained aloft for fifteen minutes. The unwieldy craft, although fraught with limitations, did, however, employ yet another Berliner innovation: tiltable propellor shafts.21 Thus all the elements for a universally controllable helicopter were developed and installed by Emile Berliner in his aircraft. The evolution of helicopter design thereafter became merely a matter of reducing the helicopter to its essential elements. The Berliners set about immediately to do just that.

At this time several other inventors entered the field. Sikorsky is most notable among those who took full advantage of the principles and devices pioneered by Emile Berliner, and went on to construct new and larger models..

A biplane "helicoplane" succeeded the Berliner triplane of 1922. "This machine was flown out of ground effect at 30' height, maneuvered laterally 400 yards, and attained a forward speed of 40 mph."22

"It was successfully demonstrated to the US Army in 1924, with several free flights at College Park Md. Airport. An example of that landmark aircraft is in storage at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum's Silver Hill facility, in Maryland, USA."23

The Berliner triplane and biplane designs gave way to a monoplane. "A Berliner helicoplane, of monoplane configuration, was entered in the British helicopter competitions of 1925-26, It had a lifting tail rotor."24

A Berliner helicopter of that period was put on permanent exhibition in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. It is designated: "1924 Berliner Helicopter No. 5." It is described as "a Berliner 1924 "helicopter" with two propellers on a horizontal wing and a third near the tail. Also on view is a Berliner 1932 monocoupe [Ercoupe] that was popular in air shows.."25

At this point Emile Berliner was in his seventies, and was deeply involved in his philanthropies and concern with public health. His son, Henry, become a pioneering inventor in his own right, at first with the help and guidance of his father, and then, when his father passed away in 1929, he followed in his father's footsteps to break new ground in aeronautics. Albeit this monograph is concerned with his father, a brief summary of Henry's considerable accomplishments is in order. They can surely be considered an extension of Emile Berliner's pioneering in aeronautics.

The Berliner-Joyce Aircraft Corporation of Dundalk, Maryland was founded in 1929 by Henry Adler Berliner and Temple Nach Joyce, a well-known aviator with World War I combat experience. In April of that year, the United States Air Corps launched a design competition for a two-seat fighter. Berliner-Joyce won the design contest in June, 1929, against competition from Boeing and Curtiss.

The "XP-16" was delivered to Wright Field on September 1, 1930, where it gave an impressive account of itself. It could climb to 5000 feet in 2.6 minutes with three machine guns and two 122 lb. bombs. "The production version... had a 3-bladed propellor which lowered the top speed but increased the range to 650 miles. "26

During 1931, the air force ordered the aircraft and the navy ordered a carrier-based version. The Berliner-Joyce P-16 had the distinction of being the last biplane fighter to enter service with the USAAC. In addition, the P-16 remained the only two-seat biplane fighter to be produced for the army after 1918.

Henry remained as president of Berliner Aircraft from 1930 to 1954. He was also the founder of Engineering Research Corporation in Maryland. ERCO became the producer of the Ercoupe, a spinproof light aircraft that was popular for decades and remains today one of the most loved of civilian planes. The Ercoupe also proved its worth as a warbird on August 12, 1941: "The Ercoupe was the first US JATO (Jet Assisted Take-off) airplane."27

In 1933, North American Aviation, Inc. acquired a controlling share ownership of ERCO, and in1934 the Berliner-Joyce company officially became a division of North American .

Henry Berliner founded and headed another business in the aeronautical field, the Electrical Engineering and Mfg. Co. (EEMCO), based in Los Angeles.

Henry Berliner became Chief of War Plans for the Eighth Air Force and lost an arm in combat during WWII.

Emile Berliner, an Unheralded Genius

Emile Berliner, through his innovations and inventions, left invaluable legacies in communications, acoustics, and aeronautics to America and to the world. His activity in the field of public health saved hundreds of thousands of lives. His philanthropies helped to boost women to new levels of equality in science. His support for Israel and the Hebrew University was considerable.

Why, then, is Emile Berliner absent from American schoolbooks?

Why, then, is the life of Emile Berliner not part of the world's historical consciousness?


  1. Emile Berliner, Maker of the Microphone, Frederick William Wile, 1926, 164-5.
  2. Wile, Ibid, 209-10.
  3. Wile, Ibid., 217.
  4. Wile Ibid., 218-9.
  5. Wile, Ibid., 220
  6. Wile, Ibid., 240-1.
  7. Wile Ibid., 247
  8. Wile Ibid., 290-1.
  9. The titles of Berliner's works on public health include: Some Neglected Essentials in the Fight Against Consumption; Recent Developments in Infant Feeding; History of the Society for the Prevention of Sickness; The Tuberculin Test as a Factor in Milk Traffic; The Outbreak of Typhoid Fever in Cassel of 1909; Opening Address before a Congressional Sub-Committee on Milk Legislation for the District of Columbia; Hospital Milk; High Typhoid Mortality in Washington Hospitals and Their Milk Supply; The Literary Propaganda of the Washington Tuberculosis Association; What Constitutes Municipal Responsibility; How a Love Kiss may be a Death kiss; Twelve Health Rhymes; Are Annual Winter Epidemics caused by Infected Butter?
  10. Wile, Ibid., 303
  11. Encyclopedia Brittanica,, "Emile Berliner."
  12. "Early experiments with helicopters began with [Emile] Berliner's first machines, a 1907 single-blade model with a 36hp Adams-Farwell rotary driving a 17' rotor at 150rpm, and [another model with] a 55hpo Adams-Farwell version with rotors on either side of the cockpit." Marty Meisel., American Airplanes - Berliner, Berliner-Joyce, Helicopters, 1907-24, aerofiles.com/_berlin.html
  13. Aviation Timeline: US AVIATION Firsts. aerofiles.com/chrono.html
  14. Historia. helicopteros.com.br/auhisi1.htm
  15. Aerofiles "Williams." aerofiles.com/_wh.html
  16. American Airplanes - Idem.
  17. Joe Baugher, jbaugher@worldnet.att.com, ( maintained by Carl Pettypiece).
  18. Eugene M. Emme, Compiler, Aeronautics and Astronautics: An American Chronology of Science and Technology in the Exploration of Space, 1915-1960, Washington DC: National Aeronautics ans Space Administration, 1951, 11-19.
  19. Aeronautics and Astronautics Chronology, 1920-24
  20. Aviation Timeline: idem.
  21. Baugher. Idem.
  22. Lennart Johnsson. American Airplanes - Berliner, Berliner-Joyce, Helicopters, 1924-25. aerofiles.com/_berlin.html
  23. Henry Francis (calxa@aol.com) And The Virtual Hangar Web Site
  24. American Airplanes - Lennart Johnsson, idem.
  25. Eugene Meyers, College Park Aviation Museum
  26. USAF Museum,"Berliner-Joyce P-16
  27. James H. Messer, Ercoupe Warbird, as quoted on the site: