The government moves in

As the 1880s progressed, it became obvious to the Telegraph Board that telephones were no mere fad. The government had to make a stand. An early measure came in 1883 when the board managed to have a law passed forbidding the erection of telephone poles on state-owned land without permission, a law that was solemnly ignored in the countryside. The next attempt was to try to get the Riksdag to decide to tax telephones in 1887. When this too failed, the board adopted the strategy of beginning to take over telephone networks or building its own telephone lines.

The situation was affected by a major technical advance: twin-conductor cables allowed calls to be made over much longer distances. With single conductors, it was difficult to maintain audibility over more than 100 kilometers; twin conductors gave a range of thousands of kilometers.

The first twin-conductor cable opened between Paris and Brussels in February 1887. The following February, SAT applied to the government for the right to build a telephone connection along the public highways with twin-conductor cables from Stockholm to Gothenburg, Malmö, Örebro and Sundsvall. The Telegraph Board, whose opinion had to be sought, recommended that the application be rejected. Then it applied for permission itself, and received it. This marked the start of the first interurban line between Stockholm and Gothenburg. Opening in 1889, it marked the start of the Telegraph Board’s own telephone system, Rikstelefon.

Once the line had opened, it became obvious that the Telegraph Board was still thinking like a telegraph board. Not only were the cables carried over the board’s old telegraph poles, which made the route much longer than necessary, but calls could only be made from one telegraph office to the other. This led to much derision, but the situation continued for several years. SAT lost no time in launching a free service for its subscribers allowing telegrams to be sent to and from the government telegraph offices.

The twin-conductor system led to a fundamental change in telephony. It was impossible to have double cables on the rooftops in many places, so during 1889 SAT began to bury its cables under the streets of Stockholm. Cedergren himself constructed a cable drum for this purpose – after getting the idea in America – which Rikstelefon also began to use.

The small local telephone associations now needed to invest significant sums if they wanted to adopt the new technology so that they too could offer long-distance calls. It was difficult for local ventures to compete with the enormous resources and expertise of the Telegraph Board. They had to decide what was more important, owning their own networks or being able to make calls across the country.

Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn

© Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Centre for Business History

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