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Exploring St. Henri's Emile Berliner Radio Museum

What used to be an RCA (Radio Corporation of America) communication and production building now looks like a great place to start filming season six of The Wire. Surrounded by Home Depot on one side and an abandoned parking lot on the other, the Emile Berliner Radio Museum is a hidden jewel amongst the isolated buildings on Lacasse in St. Henri. Let’s be honest, an abandoned white building with sketchy cars in front of it doesn’t immediately scream, “Come on in, museums are fun!” Thankfully, the search for the museum through dead-end hallways of a warehouse is worth the effort.

Emile Berliner was a German-born inventor, piano player, father of seven, and merchant. Berliner dedicated his life to inventing and improving new technologies, and one of his most prominent inventions was the gramophone, which he later on connected to the radio. Berliner, who is also known for initiating the recording industry, worked on the telephone shortly after its invention by Alexander Graham Bell, and improved its transmitter by installing a microphone.

Berliner is particularly significant to Montreal history because he worked at the Montreal branch of the RCA in the early 20th century. Robert Bisson, a renovation technician at the museum, told me that Berliner lived in the building next door (which I understand to now be the Home Depot parking lot). The museum itself was one of the two RCA communication and production centres, and played an essential role during World War II in communication and information delivery.

The museum is currently housed in a large loft-like room lined with wall-to-wall electronics for the current exhibition, From Morse Code to Text Messaging: The Technology Evolution of Telecommunications. This ranges from the most primitive Morse code transmission machines to the military radios used to communicate with Eastern Germany after World War II, and from the first calculator to the first typewriter.

According to Bisson, all of the items in the exhibit are donations except for one gramophone that the museum procured, which is not on display. Bisson and other technicians volunteer on Wednesdays to fix and renovate old radios, computers, phones, and other electronics, and give them to the museum for exhibitions. At night, the old radios can pick up certain signals. If ever you find yourself by Place St. Henri at unholy, dark hours of the night, head over for a quick listen to the radio that may have been a part of solving the Cuban Missile Crisis (you never know). Midnight gramophone session? So avant-garde.

The most interesting aspect was seeing how much technology has changed. In addition to the innovations I wasn’t alive to witness (the gramophone, the first telephone, typewriters), they have some appliances that will make you realize you’re older than you think. From ancient-looking 1990s landline telephones to the original, candy-coloured iMac, even Millenials will find something to be nostalgic about. Experiencing emotion toward obsolete electronics is one of the unexpected pleasures of the museum.

Regardless of what interests you, visiting the Emile Berliner Radio Museum will be a time well spent. A haven for broke college students (there’s only a voluntary entrance charge), reaching new levels of hipness is inevitable. Pose among the retro electronics, and don’t forget to set your Instagram filter to Earlybird.

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