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Montreal museum a history of sound that highlights gramophone inventor

Last Updated Sep 11, 2017 at 4:20 pm EDT

MONTREAL – Jean Belisle can be forgiven if he doesn’t get too excited about the recent trend back to vinyl records.

That’s because part of the collection in his Montreal museum includes records that are more than 100 years old.

Belisle, 68, is one of the founders of the Musee des ondes Emile Berliner, which is located in a former RCA Victor factory.

Berliner was the inventor of the gramophone and the round flat disk that became the standard for listening to music for decades before records were replaced by tape decks, cassettes and CDs.

The German-born Berliner invented the disk in the United States in the late 1800s to compete with Thomas Edison’s phonograph, which used a cylinder that apparently was difficult to produce and took a lot of space.

“Berliner developed the disk which was the solution because it takes up nearly no room and, in parallel, he developed the machine to play (it),” Belisle said in a recent interview.

He said Berliner came to Montreal around the turn of the century because he was having problems with his patents. He then started selling records and producing them in his own studio under the Berliner Gram-O-Phone label.

In 1924, the Victor Talking Machine company bought the Berliner company. Victor then merged with RCA in 1929 to become the RCA Victor company.

Belisle pointed out that “Nipper,” the trademark RCA dog that listens to “His Master’s Voice” (HMV) on a gramophone, first belonged to Berliner.

“The Victor was dropped in the ’60s because it was too old-fashioned, but they kept the dog because the dog was the property of the Berliner Gramophone company,” he said. “When the assets were transferred, the dog went with the assets.”

Berliner died in August 1929 after a heart attack.

Belisle said he decided to create the museum because people living in the southwestern area of St-Henri were curious to know more about the RCA building complex where many of their family members had worked.

“They were working there for 30 or 40 years, all at the same place, because at the time when you entered a company, you stayed there and your kids worked there,” he added.

Belisle said the museum got its start after he and his co-founders put on a show before the local historical society in the early 1990s. They realized very little was known about the technological history of the area.

“We have known that southwest (Montreal) was really a kind of Silicon Valley in the early 20th century,” he said, adding that Alexander Graham Bell and Guglielmo Marconi also set up operations in the area.

The Berliner museum officially opened its doors in 1996 with a small collection.

“When we opened, there were still a lot of people who worked at RCA who were still alive, so those people arrived with stuff,” Belisle said.

Besides being home to gramophones and records, the museum is also full of technological memories including old radios and TVs.

“It’s not just about gramophones, it’s everything related to the industry of communications by sound waves,” he stressed.

“You have all the early phonographs, all kinds of recording machines, and tons of different media. We even have a colour TV from the ’50s.”

Every year, the museum also creates a temporary exhibition and at the moment it features an exhibit that focuses on the designs of the ’60s.

It includes a variety of record players that were produced in Canada by companies like Electrohome and Clairtone.

“We were extremely fortunate because the chief designer of RCA in the ’60s is still alive and we were able to collect many machines that he designed,” Belisle said.

The museum’s Anja Borck said it gets some government support but that it operates “basically on creativity and we sometimes get donations.”

“It’s a struggle, it’s a struggle every month,” she said.

Borck said visitors may have some difficultly finding the museum, but it will stay at its current location, because “we are where the action happened at the time.”

She hopes to get more support from the city, specifically by getting Montreal to set up signage so the public can easily find the museum.

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If you go: The Berliner museum is located in central Montreal at 1001 rue Lenoir, five blocks west of the Place-Saint-Henri subway station on the orange line.

It is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. It accepts groups by appointment any time of the week.

Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children, seniors and people in groups of five or more.

You can email the museum at: info@moeb.ca