That Was Invented By...whom??? (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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That Was Invented By... Whom???

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:23:20
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and as we continue our exploration of invention and innovation, let's move back in time a bit to the inventing past. Turns out some pretty big time innovations were born here in the D.C. region, though most of us would be hard pressed to name their parents. For instance, here's a little quiz for you. If you were to hear the following...

MR. PAUL DICKSON

13:23:43
He's the one who creates the digital age. This was the man who really brought us into the modern world.

SHEIR

13:23:48
Would you know who local historian, Paul Dickson, is talking about? I'll give you a hint. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, this creator of the digital age resided in Garrett Park, Md. in a succession of houses and recently Paul and I -- tell us where we are right now, Paul -- paid a visit to one.

DICKSON

13:24:05
We're in a private residence across the street from actually where I live which was at one point a house that was rented by Herman Hollerith.

SHEIR

13:24:13
Now, if that name...

DICKSON

13:24:13
Herman Hollerith.

SHEIR

13:24:14
...doesn't sound familiar, well, Paul Dickson says, don't despair.

DICKSON

13:24:18
He becomes a little bit marginalized. Everybody now talks about Babbage as inventing the computer.

SHEIR

13:24:22
And yet Herman Hollerith's contributions to the computer and the computing world, well, they weren't exactly small potatoes.

DICKSON

13:24:30
He was a real inventor. I mean, a real classic American, I've got an idea, eureka, inventor.

SHEIR

13:24:36
Especially when it came to data. See, in the late 1800s, people knew how to record data, they knew how to tabulate data but Hollerith took it one step further. Just in time for the 1890 census, he figured out a way to use punch cards so the data could be read by a machine.

DICKSON

13:24:53
The first tabulating machine, he does for the census. It's battery operated. And he invents a keyboard to enter the data, to actually punch the cards and when the cards go through, he would use a very small electrical impulse that would count the number of holes that it went through. And from that he would derive the numbers.

SHEIR

13:25:10
And thanks to this punched card or Hollerith card, it took just one year to tabulate the 1890 census. Tabulating the 1880 census took eight.

DICKSON

13:25:20
There were earlier digital input devices, as your card looms, which are a form of weaving. But he was the first one to actually take it and use an electrical impulse, zeros and ones, to count with it.

SHEIR

13:25:31
Hollerith eventually merged his business, the tabulating machine company...

DICKSON

13:25:35
Which is in Georgetown on 31st Street.

SHEIR

13:25:37
With a handful of others to form the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation.

DICKSON

13:25:41
And that becomes IBM, International Business Machines. So there's a line between Hollerith and IBM and the IBM card, which is, if you're old enough, you remember -- you remember the ubiquitous IBM card. But that was really the Hollerith card.

SHEIR

13:25:54
So again, no small potatoes with our man Herman.

DICKSON

13:25:58
It was like a whole new world. It was like, you know, all of a sudden you could do all this stuff, you know, and go, wow.

SHEIR

13:26:04
But Herman Hollerith isn't the only local inventor who rang in a new world. Even if his name might not ring bells, which brings us to quiz number two. Care of Washington Walks founder, Carolyn Crouch.

MS. CAROLYN CROUCH

13:26:17
Two inventions that came from Washington, D.C. by a German born immigrant have had astounding impacts on contemporary life.

SHEIR

13:26:28
OK. Any idea who she's talking about? Anyone? Anyone? Well, to be honest, when I met Carolyn, outside the old patent office, now the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, I didn't have a clue. Why have I never heard of him? But I wasn't alone.

CROUCH

13:26:43
I don't know. I'd never heard of him until my colleague Brian Craft told me about him. Who is obviously somewhat of a genius and a real expansive imaginative thinker.

SHEIR

13:26:53
His name was Emile Berliner.

CROUCH

13:26:55
He had left school at age 14, ends up immigrating to America. So he is basically self taught.

SHEIR

13:27:02
And in 1876, at a centennial celebration in Philadelphia...

CROUCH

13:27:06
He saw a demonstration of this new device called a telephone.

SHEIR

13:27:10
Now, obviously, this was not the telephone we know today, far from it.

CROUCH

13:27:15
People would hold a ear piece to listen but then they would have to, kind of, shout into a little sound receiver and the sound was transmitted by a magnetic current.

SHEIR

13:27:28
So our self taught young man, he's about 26 at the time, takes one look at that telephone...

CROUCH

13:27:34
And he says, I could improve that.

SHEIR

13:27:37
He hurries back to his boarding house in north west D.C.'s Penn Quarter.

CROUCH

13:27:41
Sympathetic landlady lets him set up a little inventing lab with wires extending down from his room to her room.

SHEIR

13:27:49
And Emile Berliner figures out how to make the sound travel, not via a magnetic current...

CROUCH

13:27:54
But via an electric current. It greatly improved the sound quality.

SHEIR

13:27:59
But that was just the beginning. About a decade later he encounters another invention.

CROUCH

13:28:04
We would know it today as the Victrola. The thing with the large tulip shaped sound amplifier and then it has sound recorded onto a wax cylinder.

SHEIR

13:28:16
Berliner isn't impressed by the sound quality on this one either.

CROUCH

13:28:20
So he thinks, I think, I can make that better.

SHEIR

13:28:23
And he devises a way to record the sound, not on a wax cylinder...

CROUCH

13:28:28
But on grooves on a flat disk, which we know as the long playing record and in some ways the great grandfather of the compact disk.

SHEIR

13:28:38
Thus Berliners company Gramophone is born. As is a rather innovative and memorable marketing ploy for said company, which by the way eventually became known as little something called, RCA.

CROUCH

13:28:51
He saw a painting that had a white dog cocking its head in a cute way, listening to a gramophone.

SHEIR

13:29:00
And he turned that painting...

CROUCH

13:29:01
His master's voice...

SHEIR

13:29:03
...into his company's logo.

CROUCH

13:29:05
So, thanks to him, generations and generations always recognized RCA because of this little dog, Nipper, listening to the gramophone.

SHEIR

13:29:13
Now, of course, Emile Berliner and Herman Hollerith are just two local inventors who dreamed up ways to change the world. Back in Garrett Park, historian Paul Dickson says the D.C. region always has attracted people like these guys.

DICKSON

13:29:26
We really saw, from an early day, that one of the ways we would get ahead of the rest of the world was because we had people coming here who were bright and wanted to invent stuff.

SHEIR

13:29:36
And some of them worked at major institutions.

DICKSON

13:29:39
The Carnegie Institute, the Volta Bureau where the a lot of the early inventions for the deaf came, the Smithsonian.

SHEIR

13:29:45
Well, others tinkered away on their own, laying the ground work for larger organizations, like Herman Hollerith and IBM and Emile Berliner and RCA. So next time you phone a friend, rock out to your favorite CD or toddle around on your PC, think about how much these two Washingtonians have changed your household, even if they haven't quite become household names.
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