Photo Credit: Jewish Press

No, Alexander Graham Bell wasn’t Jewish – although some wags maintain that he invented the telephone so that he could call his mother, hence, “Ma Bell.”

Nor was Thomas Edison Jewish; in fact, he was a notorious anti-Semite (see my Nov. 25, 2016 Jewish Press column “Thomas Edison, the Jews, and the Edison Israel Stamp.”)

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But Bell did not invent the telephone; he was merely the first to patent an improved but still qualitatively poor adaptation of it. Nor did Edison invent the record player, as the United States Supreme Court ultimately ruled after 14 years of litigation on that question.

Rather, it was the hardly-remembered Emile Berliner who invented the two most basic mechanisms for electronic communication, the microphone and the induction coil transformer, which produced a high quality of sound and facilitated the transmission of clear sound over long distances. Even to date, Berliner’s innovations are used in every telephone, radio, television, public address system, etc.

Berliner (1851 – 1929) was born in Hanover, Germany in an Orthodox home to Samuel, a merchant and a renowned Talmudic scholar, and Sarah, an amateur musician. Though he later became an agnostic, he remained a proud Jew; his approach to the faith of his fathers may be summarized by his statement that “my scientific investigations have not harmed by one iota my religious ideals, ethical foundations, and the wonderful religious worship of Judaism, which I learned to love in the days of my youth.”

A president of the Washington Zionist district and a large contributor to institutions in Eretz Yisrael, particularly Hebrew University and the Palestine Restoration Fund, he frequently wrote articles on the centrality of Eretz Yisrael to Jews and Judaism as well a famous letter to the editors of both the Washington Post and the Washington Star in support of the Balfour Declaration.

The irony of Bell receiving credit for inventing the telephone is particularly striking for several reasons. First, American inventor Elisha Gray, who had simultaneously developed the telephone, registered his invention at the U.S. Patent Office on the same day as Bell . . . but two hours later. Second, on October 26, 1861 – some 15 years before Bell sought his patent – Jewish physicist Philip Reis (1834 – 1874) demonstrated an “electrical eardrum,” which he called a “telephon,” when he transmitted the verses of a song over a 300-foot line to another room.

In a March 22, 1896 editorial titled “The Telephone,” The New York Times credited Reis as its inventor – Bell was not even mentioned – and German textbooks similarly credited Reis with the invention until the Nazis purged his name, along with those of other Jews, from German literature. Perhaps most telling of all, Bell’s actual patent application was for an “improvement on the telephon.”

One commentator best described Bell’s device, pre-Berliner, as “the electrical equivalent of a child’s toy composed of two cans connected by a taut string” adding that “Bell contributed nothing to the theories on which electrical voice transmission is based, nor was he the first to apply these theories in physical form.”

As to Edison, Berliner, a modest man, left it for others to correct the public misconceptions regarding Edison’s contributions and, as a result, many still erroneously attribute Berliner’s achievements to “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” For example, when various writers asserted that Edison had invented the operational telephone transmitter, the president of ATT himself wrote a letter properly crediting Berliner. Similarly, when Congress was considering awarding Edison a medal for the development of the gramophone, it was left to others to set the record straight (pardon the obvious pun).

Berliner, who was lauded by President Hoover as “an inventive genius,” was undoubtedly the greatest Jewish inventor of all time. He improved the poor acoustical quality of many halls – including synagogues – by inventing acoustical tiles that could be affixed to the existing walls. Intrigued by the possibilities of a “flying machine,” he founded the Gyro Motor Company, under whose auspices he designed, developed, and produced a helicopter and a new type of lightweight internal combustion engine to power the rotors (1909; pre-Wright Brothers). The telephone, record player, helicopter, radio, microphone, transformer, acoustic tiles, power loom, and the first light combustion engine originally used in small airplanes all owe their development to Berliner. It is simply incredible that this great man has been all but forgotten.

Moreover, his notable activities in public health included saved countless thousands of lives and dramatically improved the public welfare. He founded the Bureau of Health Education (1924) to promote public hygiene and health education for mothers and children, and he donated funds for an infirmary building at the Starmont Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Washington Grove, Maryland, which he dedicated to the memory of his father. He undertook a broad public campaign to curb the high mortality rate of children, focusing particularly on establishing milk standards and urging mothers to always boil milk before feeding it to infants. He also published a children’s book emphasizing the importance of personal hygiene, which he distributed to schools.

As a child, Berliner was sent to Wolfenbüttel to attend the Samson-Schule, one of the foremost Jewish schools in Germany, graduating in 1865 at the age of 14 and ending all his formal schooling. After a few years in Germany working at various jobs to help support his parents and siblings, he escaped military duty during the Franco-Prussian War by emigrating to the United States, where he accepted a position in a dry goods store in Washington, D.C. (1870). After various other jobs, he ended up in New York as a janitor in the research laboratory of Constantine Fahlberg (the discoverer of saccharine), which launched Berliner’s career in science, research, and innovation.

Attending the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Berliner witnessed Bell’s historic demonstration of the telephone and, fascinated by its possibilities, began studying the instrument in his rooming house. After determining that its great flaw was a poor transmitter, he created a type of microphone that dramatically increased the volume of the transmitted voice.

When the newly-formed American Bell Telephone Company learned that an entirely unknown inventor and untrained scientist had submitted a patent caveat – which Berliner had written entirely by himself, unassisted by any patent attorney, a tremendous accomplishment in itself – and obtained a patent, it sent Thomas Watson to meet with him. (Watson allegedly received the first electronic telephone communication when Bell famously said to him from the next room, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.”)

When Watson reported back about how impressed he was with both Berliner and his transmitter, American Bell purchased the invention, adapted Berliner’s improvements into its basic model, and hired Berliner as chief engineer, in which capacity he worked on several difficult issues facing the nascent telephone industry. After marrying and becoming an American citizen, he decided to pursue his dream of working for himself as a private inventor/researcher, and he worked on additional improvements to the telephone, the rights to which he ultimately sold to Bell Telephone. His continued his deep involvement in this new and potentially profitable enterprises, which led to monumental battles over patents, manufacturing rights, and the like. An injunction issued by an American court barring him from manufacturing or selling his inventions in the United States forced him to relocate his business to Canada and to Europe, where he established what became the largest telephone factory on the continent

In 1886, Berliner commenced work on what would become the gramophone, the recording and reproduction of sound by means of disc records. Berliner discovered that on Edison’s instrument, voices were recorded on a wax cylinder that broke easily and had to be cranked by hand, the result of which was that the sound often came out as a harsh muddle of words. Rejecting Edison’s use of an unwieldy and burdensome cylinder to reproduce sound, he created a “pancake disc,” a flat device with grooves varying in width rather than depth, which we recognize today as a phonograph record.Singer 101317

His system was revolutionary because if facilitated the mass production of relatively inexpensive sound recordings. In fact, he made the first “flat disc machines” in his New York workshop and hired musicians to come there to record the music he sold along with his machines. Having developed a great fondness for music from his mother, Berliner was himself a talented pianist, a skill he put to use by playing on some of the very early recordings made for his gramophone. Thus, it was Berliner’s machine – not Edison’s – that became the world-famous Victrola. And it was Berliner who convinced the Victor Talking Machine Company to purchase the rights to use the image of the dog Nipper listening to “His Master’s Voice” on a gramophone for its American marketing efforts.

In this rare October 28, 1896 correspondence on his Laboratory of the Berliner Gramophone Company letterhead (“also Office of the United States Gramophone Company”), Berliner writes to Max Levy regarding his ownership of company stock:

I may not be here for a little while as we are very busy here. What I want to say is this: your stock is all common and as the preferred stock will pay dividend ahead of the common and as nearly every larger holder has both common and preferred, I will convert 250 of your shares into preferred if you send me the certificate . . . we have no regular monthly meetings but only “special” so far . . . hope your exams are well . . . so are we.

Levy (1857 – 1926) helped Berliner develop absolute sound copies for “pressing” recordings in unlimited numbers. A Jewish technician of great ability, he was widely recognized for the invention of precision machinery in the making of glass-ruled “screens for photo-mechanical engraving,” which were used in the production of half-tone reproduction of photographs featured in newspapers and magazines.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.