The Gramophone Company, based in the United Kingdom and founded on behalf of Emil Berliner, was one of the early recording companies, the parent organisation for the His Master's Voice (HMV) label, and the European affiliate of the American Victor Talking Machine Company. Although the company merged with the Columbia Graphophone Company in 1931 to form Electric and Musical Industries Limited (EMI), its name "The Gramophone Company Limited" continued in the UK into the 1970s.
The Gramophone Company was founded in 1898 by William Barry Owen and Trevor Williams in London, England. Owen was acting as agent for Emile Berliner, inventor of the gramophone record, whilst Williams provided the finances. Most of the company's early discs were made in Hanover, Germany at a plant operated by members of Berliner's family, though it had operations around the world.
In 1898, Fred Gaisberg moved from the U.S. to London to set up the first disc recording studio in Europe; it was situated in Maiden Lane. Among early artists he recorded was the Syria Lamont, an Australian soprano whose single "Coming through the Rye" was one of the first ever issued. In December 1900, Owen gained the manufacturing rights for the Lambert Typewriter Company, and the Gramophone Company was for a few years renamed the Gramophone & Typewriter Ltd. This was an attempt to diversify the business model, in response to a series of lawsuits brought about by Edison Bell.
In 1900, the U.S. parent of Gramophone lost a patent infringement suit brought on by Columbia Records and Zonophone, and was no longer permitted to produce records in the U.S. Its hardware manufacturer, Eldridge R. Johnson, left with a large factory and thousands of talking machines with no records to play on them, filed suit that year to be permitted to make records himself, and won, in spite of the negative verdict against Berliner. This victory by Johnson, which was used in naming the new record company the Victor Talking Machine Company he founded the following year, may have been in part due to a patent-pooling handshake agreement with Columbia. The agreement allowed Columbia to produce disc records themselves, which they began doing in 1901; Columbia's records had previously been cylinders.
The Victor Talking Machine Company was never a branch or subsidiary of Gramophone, as Johnson's manufactory, which had been making talking machines for Berliner, was his own company with many mechanical patents that he owned, which patents were valuable in the agreement with Columbia.
Thus, Victor and Columbia began making flat records in the U.S., with UK Gramophone and others continuing to do so outside the U.S. This left Edison the only major player in the making of cylinders; Columbia still made a limited number for a few years. Emile Berliner went out of the business. All he had left were the masters of his earlier records. These he took to Canada and reformed his Berliner label in Montreal, where he used the "His Master's Voice" trademark. Edison would soon join the flat record market with his diamond discs and their players.
A public relations effort of 1907 involved Alfred Clark, a New York representative of the company. Clark persuaded the Paris Opera to seal and lock 24 records in two iron and lead containers in a basement storage room. These were to be opened in 100 years. In 1912, 24 more records were added in two additional containers, along with a wind-up gramophone and a supply of needles to insure the records could be played when unsealed.
In 1989, it was discovered that one of the 1912 containers had been opened and emptied and the gramophone stolen. The three remaining containers were moved to the French National Library. When opened in December 2007, some of the records were broken, but copies of the missing and broken records were located in the French National Library. EMI digitized the collection and released it on three compact discs in February 2009 as Les Urnes de l'Opera.
In February 1909, the company introduced new labels featuring the famous trademark known as "His Master's Voice", generally referred to as HMV, to distinguish them from earlier labels which featured an outline of the Recording Angel trademark. The latter had been designed by Theodore Birnbaum, an executive of the Gramophone Company pressing plant in Hanover, Germany. While the general public came to refer to the records and company as "His Master's Voice" or "HMV" because of the prominence of the phrase on the record labels, The Gramophone Company was never officially known as the HMV or His Master's Voice Company. The painting "His Master's Voice" was made in the 1890s with the dog Nipper listening to an Edison cylinder phonograph. In 1899, Owen bought the painting from Francis Barraud, the artist, and asked him to paint out the Edison machine and substitute a Gramophone, which he did. In 1900, Emile Berliner acquired the US rights to the painting and it became the trademark of the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901. UK rights to the logo were reserved by Gramophone. Nipper the dog lived from 1884 to 1895 and is honored in England with a celebrated grave marker.
In March 1931 Gramophone merged with the Columbia Graphophone Company to form Electric and Musical Industries Ltd (EMI). The "Gramophone Company, Ltd." name, however, continued to be used for many decades, especially for copyright notices on records. Gramophone Company of India was formed in 1946. The Gramophone Company Ltd legal entity was renamed EMI Records Ltd in 1973.