Although the complex of tuners and amplifiers, turntables and decks that brings the world's music to our living room is hidden in a wall, a ceramic Nipper marks the spot where we keep the mess we still call the record player. Nipper (1884-1895) was not only once the most famous trademark in the world; his story is intertwined with the history of recorded sound and its commercial development.
Most schoolchildren would name Edison as the inventor of the phonograph, but it has many fathers. Precursors were recordings of speech patterns on moving paper, much like an electrocardiogram. A Frenchman, Charles Cros, was the first to record and audibly play back sound. (I have been told that the first word so recorded was merde.)* Edison saw his own practical invention as an office machine for stenographic use-- the Dictaphone. Edison's wax cylinders were impractical for mass production. When they were first used commercially for music, the artists would sing into half a dozen recording horns and make six cylinders. Then they would sing the song again and make six more. Emile Berliner (1851-1929) developed the flat disc that was far more appropriate for mass production, and his microphone was essential for high fidelity when electric recording replaced the recording horn. (The latter invention was first used in 1878 as the original mouthpiece in Bell telephones.)
Nipper was not listening to a Victrola in the original painting (that brand name came later); he was not even listening to an early Berliner disc player. The painter Francis Barraud, who had inherited Nipper from his brother, had a cylinder phonograph on which he recorded and played back speech. As the painting's title has it, Nipper was literally attentive to His Master's Voice. Barraud tried unsuccessfully to sell the painting to Edison's London agent. When Emile Berliner and his associates bought the painting, they insisted that the cylinder machine be painted over with a representation of a playback-only disc machine, and that is how we now know the painting.
Not only did Berliner perfect disc recording and the microphone, but he also founded three of the world's major record companies. In addition to the American Victor company, he started Deutsche Gramophone Gesellschaft, the cornerstone of today's PolyGram; and the British Gramophone Company, renamed HMV (for His Master's Voice) and now the core of today's EMI. From the beginning, still in the nineteenth century, Berliner's companies actively recruited the leading classical and popular artists in America, England, and Europe to record for the new medium.
Now, a century after his passing, Nipper is disappearing from record labels. When Nipper became a trademark, he appeared on records of the several Berliner companies, including Victor in the U.S., The Gramophone Company in England, and DGG in Germany. These affiliations lasted roughly until the end of World War II, and a Benny Goodman 78 rpm record had Nipper on the label all over the world. Now HMV is affiliated with EMI-owned American Capitol, and Victor belongs to the German BMG. That means Nipper can now only appear in the country of origin-- BMG cannot use Nipper in the U.K., and EMI cannot put him on its American releases. Nipper is still on BMG-owned American RCA Victor records, but HMV recordings appear in the States on the Angel label, and Nipper is replaced by the pre-Nipper "Recording Angel" trademark. Recently, EMI has begun to replace Nipper with the Angel in England as well.
The legal considerations bear a cost: if Nipper is to appear on recordings in the home market, export covers and labels have to be printed separately, without Nipper. Furthermore, trendy businesspeople want "global" trademarks, whether they mean anything or not, and Nipper cannot be global. And people who remember Nipper probably only buy classical and jazz records of little commercial significance. Rock albums rarely have any outwardly visible trademark. Nipper, in short, is as much of an anachronism as a memory that works for longer than a week.
The modern record industry is the cumulative product of many technically and commercially inventive people. But if one person deserves more credit than any other for our ability to hear Fats Waller sing and play in our living rooms today, that person is Emile Berliner. Little Nipper serves as a reminder of the history that continues to enrich us all.