Montreal, record and radio pioneer
A range of different models of gramophones produced by Émile Berliner's factory are displayed in the museum, alongside shellac records and vinyl records.
Did you know that Montreal at the beginning of the 20th century, in addition to being a strong place for music, was also one of the world's hubs for the recording industry? Located in the heart of Saint-Henri, the little-known Musée des ondes Émile Berliner offers visitors the chance to discover how the Berliner family’s inventions and expertise in recording and distributing records in addition to radio waves have given Montreal a reputation as a “starmaker”.
“Unlike the phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison, the gramophone, developed and patented by Émile Berliner, allows the mass production and distribution of records, explains the director of the Musée des ondes, Anja Borck. This new device comes in a way to democratize the music industry since people will now be able to have access to very good quality discs made here and then exported.”
The record in Montreal
Faced with legal problems concerning the production of his gramophone, Émile Berliner moved his company from the United States to Montreal and had a factory built in Saint-Henri, on Lenoir Street near Saint-Antoine Street, today. the Museum of Waves that bears his name. The choice of Montreal was far from trivial.
“Émile Berliner established his factory in Montreal for two reasons. The first is that he had already invented the microphone for the telephone of Alexander Graham Bell, who had a factory on rue de l'Aqueduc, now Lucien-L'Allier. The second is that there was a direct rail line between Montreal and Washington, a place where he particularly liked to live. With this railway line passing over the river thanks to the “eighth wonder of the world” which is the Victoria Bridge, he can quickly travel to Montreal without ever residing there permanently.”
This move to Montreal coincides with the improvement of record production alongside the improvement in the quality of gramophones manufactured by his American partner Edward Johnson’s company, the Victor Talking Machine Company. This industry exploded at the beginning of the 20th century and Berliner went from 2000 records to more than a million annually. He will also establish a point of sale for gramophones at 2315, rue Sainte-Catherine.
“Émile Berliner, with his 12 record presses around the world, including four in Montreal, in addition to his few recording studios, was able for the first time to create international musical stars thanks to his advanced methods of record production, then accelerating distribution. Although it was possible to record music everywhere, people sent their recordings to Montreal at Émile Berliner to obtain very good quality discs, which popularized several artists by the quality of the sound and the production.
Sign of the Berliner’s Gram-O-Phone store, located on Sainte-Catherine at the turn of the 20th century. Photo: David Beauchamp, Metro
A local approach
In the early 1920s, it was Herbert S. Berliner, the son of Émile Berliner, who most actively contributed to the recording industry in Montreal by improving the techniques developed by his father to remain at the cutting edge. cutting edge technology. It’s also at this time that Herbert Berliner dissociated himself from his father by founding his own recording company in Lachine, named Compo Company Limited.
Rather than focusing on American music, which was very popular at the time, Herbert Berliner decided to tap into Montreal talent and record local artists in his new factory. It has enabled several singers and musicians to be able to export their records, such as Rodolphe Plamondon, Isidore Soucy and even La Bolduc, increasing their visibility as well as that of French-Canadian culture.
A cutting disc, reconstituted for the film La Bolduc, is on display at the Museum to illustrate the technology the Berliners used to produce records quickly and efficiently. Photo: David Beauchamp, Metro
“You can really see the distinction at this point between American and Canadian recording companies. A real Canadian identity emerges at this time, and Herbert Berliner is a pioneer in this field, although he still remains unknown to the general public. That’s why we developed a temporary exhibition on him, called Herbert S. Berliner and the Rise of the Canadian Recording Industry, covering his major role in the Canadian music industry and his international reach.”
The first Canadian satellite in Montreal
Ms. Borck points out that the building where the museum is located is not only important for the recording industry. It is also vital for the development of satellite technology, a new path that Emile Berliner took in the 1920s after the end of his monopoly in record production.
“In 1929, Emile Berliner’s company was approached by his partner Edward Johnson’s RCA-Victor (Radio Corporation of America) radio company with the aim of further developing radio technology in the entertainment industry. After merging, the factory housed a secret laboratory during World War II, and the results obtained in this laboratory generated knowledge and material that later led to the creation of a satellite that efficiently redistributed the airwaves for a period of time. long period in space.”
The front page of La Presse, March 30, 1968, illustrating the satellites in Montreal. The photo was taken in the factory founded by Émile Berliner, owned by RCA-Victor. Photo: David Beauchamp, Metro
The director of the museum specifies that Canada was able to distinguish itself from its American and Soviet counterparts of the time by creating a satellite for purely commercial and non-military purposes. Without Émile Berliner’s contribution and the series of events leading up to his involvement in the airwaves, she argues that Canada would not have been able to launch its first satellite in 1962. Émile Berliner died a few years later , in 1966.
The Musée des ondes is currently moving its exhibition inside the same building to have more space and welcome more visitors. It will be fully operational from the month of June, and invites the curious and music lovers to come and learn more about the Montreal history of records and radio waves.
From Peterson to Celine Dion
In 1936, Émile Berliner decided to set up a recording studio in his factory, then part of RCA-Victor. Enjoying an excellent reputation in the 1940s, this studio hosted internationally known jazz artists such as Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones. Rumor has it that Celine Dion was recorded in the studio by René Angélil.