A useful invention?

Fixed telephone lines were installed in many parts of Sweden in 1878 and 1879. Hakon Brunius in Jönköping was one of the pioneers. On January 3, 1878, he completed the installation of a fixed-line telephone connection between the head office of the Munksjö paper mill and its premises in the city. Shortly afterwards he proposed the establishment of a telephone network in Stockholm – a proposal that historian Denny Wahlström says was considered “far too novel” and which was not adopted.

But just how useful was the telephone?

It got a thumbs-down from the experts at the Telegraph Board. In its annual report for 1877, the board posed the question of whether the telephone could be used to send telegrams and so replace the telegraph. The answer was that it was not technically possible. Moreover, messages conveyed by sound were nowhere near as likely to be understood correctly as those sent in writing.

Articles on telephony in the journal Industritidningen Norden in April 1880 adopted a different tone, however. These claimed that the telephone was an invention that had become part of everyday life more quickly than any other. Its usefulness could be improved, however, “if the new media of communication could be incorporated into a system so that one would have a chance to talk not only to one other place but to many different places and localities”.

In other words, what was needed was a telephone network in which an exchange could connect the different lines. In fact, the first American telephone exchange had already been installed in New Haven, Connecticut, in early 1878 and the first European one in London in August 1879.

A similar project was now being planned in Stockholm, on the initiative of Gustaf Lybeck, Hugo Bratt and Wilhelm Recin, all commissioners at the Stockholm telegraph office. The project was owned by the newly established Stockholm Telephone Association but the Bell Company soon offered to take it over. The network opened under the name of Stockholms Bell Telefon AB in September 1880. A central exchange was set up at Västerlånggatan 16 and when the network started operations it had 121 telephones connected to it, most of them in Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old Town, where subscriptions were cheaper than in outlying areas. The telephone equipment was supplied by the Bell Company, a telephone directory was printed and, to begin with, the exchange was open from 9 in the morning until 10 at night

A telephone network that enabled everyone to reach everyone else would offer great benefits, wrote Industritidningen Norden, and the journal offered examples: “retailers, manufacturers and craftsmen [...] doctors, surgeons, midwives, chemists, theaters and other places of entertainment, hotels, cabmen and porters, haulers, steamboat offices, agents, commissioners”. And telephone lines between companies in many fields would offer major advantages: “between a wholesaler, retailers, factories and warehouses; between publishers, bookshops and printing offices; between hotels, railway and steamboat stations; between the different public authorities; police stations, fire brigades and other public establishments; as well as between individual correspondents and all those referred to or implied above”. 

Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn

© Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Centre for Business History

Contact info/About the site