The Nordic marvel

Why was the telephone such a success story not only in Sweden but also in the other Nordic countries? Jan Garnert, one of Sweden’s leading experts on the cultural history of the telephone, offers several explanations.

One, of course, was that Bell never sought a patent for his invention in Scandinavia. But an even more important factor was legislation in the Nordic countries that enabled anyone to install and operate a telephone network. Elsewhere it was normal for the state to acquire a monopoly over telephone operations or to offer private companies exclusive rights to operate telephone systems for a fee.

In Finland, it even became national strategy to award concessions quickly to a large number of small telephone associations in order to make it more difficult for the Russian authorities to implement their policy of “Russification”. The telegraph board there was Russian to begin with, and when the Russians finally realized the importance of telephones and wanted to place them under Russian control, the Finns had already established their own system of concessions.

The openness of the Nordic countries can, in turn, be traced back to the fact that they had no trace of feudalism in their histories. The land-owning peasants had always had economic and political influence. The gap between the elite and the masses never became as large as in the rest of Europe. The abolition of the estate-based Riksdag and the introduction of more liberal legislation left scope for merchants, industrialists and small entrepreneurs to take initiatives in the spirit of the age. Every man was the master of his fate, and the telephone could play a major role.

Alfred Rosling Bennett, a well-known English telephone expert in the early 1890s, visited many European countries and studied telephone operations from various perspectives. He criticized the high-tariff policy maintained in his own country, and said the social benefits of telephones would be greatest if they were made available for as many people as possible.

In his 1895 book The Telephone Systems of the Continent of Europe, he wrote:

“There would seem to be something in the Scandinavian blood, which renders the possession of many telephones an essential to their owners’ happiness. Wherever two or three Swedes, or Norwegians, or Danes, or Finns of Scandinavian descent, are gathered together, they almost infallibly proceed to immediately establish a church, a school, and a telephone exchange. Whatever else in life that is worth having generally comes after.”

Bennett’s example above all others was Stockholms Allmänna Telefonaktiebolag: “In Sweden at the present day one may gain a glimpse of what telephony in the future will be everywhere, and an inkling of the kind of problem which awaits the coming telephone engineers.”

Bennett’s opinion of Cedergren was unmistakable: he had always “truly been the Hotspur of telephonic warfare,” had always been at the forefront, extended and improved the technology, always appealed to the general public for support – and always earned that support.

But what was the outcome for the poor shareholders with this kind of low-tariff policy? “Well ... those commiserated personages have received year after year better dividends than telephone shareholders in the United Kingdom ever did, or are ever likely to.”

As mentioned earlier, Cedergren made many study trips, particularly to the USA. These visits were returned by Americans who traveled to Stockholm, where, Johansson reported, “they had the opportunity to study how telephone networks can be installed efficiently and cheaply without ever, to the best of my knowledge, attempting to apply these findings in their own country”.

Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn

© Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Centre for Business History

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