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AES Section Meeting Reports

New York - June 12, 2012

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About 40 AES members and guests attended a talk by Oliver Berliner, the grandson of Emile Berliner. The elder Berliner, as is well known, invented the microphone, invented the flat disk record, was co-founder of three of the world's leading record labels, and created the famous "His Master's Voice" trademark. The grandson boasts some accomplishments of his own in the audio and video fields, including two patents, authorship of two books, and dozens of speeches, lectures and published articles. As an AES member, Oliver Berliner was co-founder of the West Coast (now Los Angeles) section.

In his talk, Mr. Berliner covered much of the earliest history of audio while revealing many little known facts about that history. An example: David Sarnoff's rise to prominence as the head of RCA.

As Oliver Berliner recounted, Sarnoff was Jewish and suffered anti-semitic discrimination and harassment during his early days as an office boy at the American Marconi Company. He was a radio enthusiast and would escape his unpleasant work environment by going, late at night, to the Marconi wireless station atop the Wanamaker department store in Manhattan. There, alone in the night, he would listen to transmissions from the various ships at sea. One night in 1912, Sarnoff heard transmissions from the White Star liner Titanic—the ship had hit an iceberg and was sinking. As Sarnoff and, perhaps, a few Newfoundland fishermen listened, the drama played out in real time as the Titanic foundered while the Cunard liner Carpathia, miles away, attempted to steam to her rescue.

Due to the late hour and the limited use of wireless transmission in 1912, Sarnoff was probably the only person in New York City who was aware of what had happened, and he knew it. But he did not go to the newspapers with the story; instead he went to the offices of the White Star Line and spoke to the executives there, telling them that one of their ships had sunk. And those executives, among the richest men in the country, promptly sold their stock in White Star. Only then did they call the press. Of course, they owed David Sarnoff for his discrete little tip.

Seven years later, in 1919, at the urging of the U.S. government, General Electric and Westinghouse jointly entered the wireless business by founding a new company devoted to radio. David Sarnoff, who had risen in the ranks of American Marconi, went to his highly placed friends in business and called in his chits: he wanted to be made the manager of this new company, the Radio Corporation of America. He got the job.

The above was typical of the many anecdotes that Oliver Berliner entertained the New York section with. He closed with a comparison of the first Berliner record with the digital compact disc. Both discs are just over five inches in diameter (he held them up side by side to illustrate the similarity). Both discs were specified as being recorded from inside to outside (though the Berliner disc was subsequently recorded outside-in). Both discs were recorded on one side only. Emile Berliner even specified that his disc be recorded on its bottom surface, like the CD (to allow the chip to fall away, instead of fouling the cutting stylus), though in practice, Berliner discs were cut on their top surface. And both discs had their label printed right on the disc, instead of using paper labels like most records do. However, there is one important difference between the Berliner disc and the CD: 100 years from now the Berliner disc will still be playable. The CD likely will not be.

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