Today, a not-so-old book -- in a forgotten tongue.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Young Emile Berliner
emigrated to America in 1870. In 1877 his invention
of the microphone transformed the new Bell
telephone. Eleven years later his recording system
replaced Edison's new cylindrical phonograph.
I've just read F.W. Wile's biography of Berliner.
He wrote it in 1926, in a prose style no one uses
today. The new communications media, helped along
by Berliner's contributions, put an end to that old
rhetoric. Listen to Wile's florid account of how
nineteen-year-old Berliner left Germany for
Defoe and Fenimore Cooper ... played a subtly
vital part, with their classic narratives of
self-reliance ... in preparing Emile Berliner for
the eventful life about to open up for him in a
distant clime ... He mounted the gangplank ... and
Germany was bereft of a genius.
Berliner certainly was a bright kid
poised for adventure. By 1875 he was working in
Washington, D.C., as lab assistant to one Dr.
Fahlberg, who discovered saccharine. At nights,
Berliner studied physics on his own.
A year later Bell invented the telephone. When
Berliner heard about that, he was excited. He
didn't yet understand Bell's creation, or how
imperfectly Bell was converting sound waves to
electric current. He just wanted to make his own
Within a year he'd found that, by varying the
pressure on an electrical contact, he could send a
continuously varying signal. He invented the
microphone. Years of dreary patent-law combat
followed as he and Bell and Edison circled and vied
Next Berliner followed up on another great
invention. In 1886 Edison patented his phonograph.
He used a needle vibrating in and out of a groove
wound around a cylinder. Two years later, Berliner
perfected the familiar system with a needle
vibrating side-to-side in a groove on a flat
phonograph record. Out of that grew the Victor
Talking Machine Company.
By 1926 Berliner's little dog, listening to his
master's voice, could be found in most American
homes. By 1926 we were processing over 50 million
phone calls daily, and the vocabulary of our
communication rhetoric was shifting. 1926 was the
same year Hemingway published The Sun Also
Rises. The Nobel Literature Prize later
called out Hemingway's simple prose as
"style-making mastery of the art of modern
In 1926 Wile finished his biography with a fine bit
of doggerel: "Thus ... by teaching humility to its
disciples, Science assumes the role of a most
That's no Hemingway sentence. It's very far from
the streamlined prose of a new information-dense
world. It's no longer the way we spoke, or thought
-- after the likes of Emile Berliner.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds