Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company / Western Electric "Eiffel Tower"
This rather uncommon telephone was designed by Bell Telephone Manufacturing's Antwerp factory. It was probably a response to Ericsson' s Skeletal telephone which was proving popular in Europe. The Ericsson telephone had two big selling points. It was a compact desk phone, and it featured the first production handset. Bell's phones were currently using the Blake transmitter. It was quite large and needed a box of its own in the wall phones of the day, so a handset using the Blake was out of the question (in the United States, at least). In Europe the situation was different. Bell wanted to become a major supplier in Europe, but the market was quickly filling with competitors who designed phones that circumvented the Bell patents. These included Ader in France, Gower and Crossley in Britain, Siemens in Germany, and Ericssons in Sweden. BTMC had to design their own telephone.
Bell in the United States already had a compact transmitter, designed by Emil Berliner, but it was still under investigation by the Patents Office because of a possible conflict with the Edison carbon transmitter and others. Even the Blake transmitter could have had patent problems, but Bell continued with it after Berliner had improved its reliability. Berliner, somewhat disappointed at the use of the Blake, then left Bell. He patented his transmitter in most of Europe, however, and this may have been the factor that stopped Bell Telephone Manufacturing from using it. Berliner went on to produce rather clumsy handsets with his transmitter.
Left: Ericsson "Skeletal" phone, 1892. Although this is known to U.S. collectors as an "Eiffel Tower", we will refer to it here as a Skeletal to differentiate it from the BTMC / Western Electric "Eiffel Tower".
BTMC already had two desk phones. One was a Blake transmitter box mounted on a decorative wooden pillar, with a conventional Bell receiver at the side. The other was the so-called "turret" or "swing-arm" phone, which quickly replaced the pillar model. It was a rather clumsy box arrangement, and was fitted with a range of transmitters over its ten-year or so history. One of these was the Hunnings transmitter, patented in Britain in 1878. The Telephone Company, the Bell company in Britain, had bought the rights to the transmitter. This may have been as much a move to prevent competitors from using it, as they had not yet done anything with it. It was, however, more efficient than the Blake and it was much smaller. It was fitted to the BTMC swing-arm phones, and eventually also made its way onto BTMC's three-box wall phones as a replacement for the Blake, but it was still impractical for a handset. Anthony White's invention of the Solid Back transmitter solved this. An early capsule design was produced (Inset Transmitter) which, although of lower efficiency than the wall phone version, was small enough for a handset
BTMC "turret"desk phone with Hunnings transmitter, approx 1892. The switchhook at the left held a long-pole receiver. From Allsop (1)
The receivers currently in use were Bell's single- or double-pole receivers, a large and bulky version made necessary by the rather inefficient magnets in use. This posed a problem , as they were too bulky to use on a handset. There was a solution available, although it must have hurt BTMC's pride to do it. For the earliest models of their new handset phone they fitted a copy of the L M Ericsson receiver. This was one of the most efficient available at the time, and was in turn based on Clement Ader's design. BTMC put it into a case that looked a lot like an Ericsson, but was made in polished aluminium rather than nickelled brass. This, with their existing components, allowed them to design a modern desk phone that could compete against the Skeletal.
The telephone they produced became known as the "Eiffel Tower", after Gustav Eiffel's monument erected in 1889. The leg arrangement on the phone more closely resembles the Eiffel Tower than the Ericsson skeletal phone does, but the BTMC phone was never sold in the United States and the Ericsson phone was. Hence the confusion in names. The phone is known to have been used in Britain, Belgium, France, Australia, Spain and no doubt many other countries
The early models had a simple cradle and a one-piece ebonite cap fitted to the receiver instead of the later flat ebonite earpiece and metal retaining ring.
The phone used a 4-magnet Western Electric generator, aluminium legs (aluminium was a comparatively new metal in industrial quantities), and a folded iron cover over the generator. Instead of the ebonite deck on the Ericsson phones it used ebonite terminal strips along each side. The "potbelly" pillar, transmitter housing and receiver were turned from aluminium, and the cradle was an attractive nickel-plated brass design that reflected the Ericsson style but in a more restrained manner. The handset was available in two versions - a simple fluted handle model , or an optional decorative model with a floral design moulded into the ebonite. The phone was finished in black japan on the non-nickelled parts, with elaborate floral transfers in gold and red. The model number of the BTMC version is unknown, as no catalogs of the period seem to have survived.
The phone continued in this form for about ten years. Around 1900 manufacture of a new handset and redesigned cradle commenced. The original handset seems to have had some reliability and sensitivity problems, and many phones of the early period are found with Ericsson handsets instead. The new handset is covered in the next section. Rather surprisingly, the old swing-arm desk set continued in production for some further years as British model 5711. It was slightly cheaper than the Eiffel Tower model, which cost five pounds.
Above: Model 5715 handset. Detail of "deluxe" handset grip, cradle, early transmitter and receiver mounting, and transfers. Phone courtesy Ric Havyatt.
BTMC bought a factory at Woolwich near London. Following retooling the factory opened in 1898 under the new Western Electric name. The Eiffel Tower was featured prominently in their catalogs and advertising. It was generally unchanged from the BTMC model, although it had the new stronger cradle. The phone was probably assembled from imported BTMC parts for some time, and sold as model 5715. General Electric and (after 1910) Peel-Conner were also building parts for Western Electric. The price dropped to four pounds thirteen shillings, or four pounds fourteen and sixpence for the bridging (party line) model with a condenser. Following another transmitter upgrade to a revised form of the solid back transmitter, the model number was changed again to 40047 and the price went up to five pounds. The date of this change is uncertain, but it was probably around 1914 when supplies from the Antwerp factory were interrupted by World War 1.
British Western Electric supplied many of the colonial administrations such as Australia. In Australia many phones were stamped with Government markings such as C crown G in an oval for the new Commonwealth Government, or GR for Government Railways.These phones were mostly inherited from the previous colonial governments, and the new Australian Post Office did not continue purchases. They preferred the Ericsson Skeletal as the standard desk phone, and the candlestick styles.
Above: British Western Electric advertising, 1902. (3)
Left: British Western Electric Model 40047 with plain handset.
In 1925 the Bell company divested itself of its foreign operations. The Western Electric factories were sold to Sosthenes Behns company ITT, and were renamed Standard Telephones and Cables in Britain and Standard Electric elsewhere. Bakelite phones were being introduced in large numbers, and there was no room in the catalog for what was now a rather old-fashioned telephone.
Above: Ornate handset grip with WE Solid Back capsule aluminium-cased transmitter and Ericsson-type receiver (2)
Above : The Ericsson-based receiver from the above handset. At the top is a metal ring, which on Ader receivers is called a "sur-excitateur" and served to concentrate the lines of magnetic force. Under this are two circular stamped-out magnets, with attached pole pieces brought into the centre of the receiver. A coil is fitted onto each of these pole pieces. In the use of two magnets the WE receiver differed slightly from most others who used a single magnet bent into a semicircle. From the slightly pink colour of the weathered earpiece, it looks like BTMC used ebonite (more commonly used in Europe) than Vulcanite (as used in the United States). The pink tinge was due to mercury used to harden the rubber compound.
Above: "saddlebag" handset, polished aluminium, WE HunningsCone Deckert transmitter and watchcase-type receiver. About 1916 (2)
Above: This version appears to have been used after 1918 as an economy model. The black lacquer finish was the standard British Post Office finish. Similar handsets are known from other European manufacturers, with minor local variations.
Above: Final handset, used mostly on the "tin box" desk phones. Pressed and nickel-plated steel shells for the capsule transmitter and receiver.
Above: Front and rear views of the Solid Back capsule transmitter.
Above: Many telephones finished up with an Ericsson handset as a maintenance replacement. The Ericsson handset was less popular with the British Post Office, following complaints that they did not work well with the BPO's Western Electric switchboards, but they were widely used anyway.
Above: Rare BPO model with double crank so it could be used from either side of a desk. BPO's Tele No 8 was the same phone fitted with a switch for an extension phone.
Above: Rare Russian model with a rounded top and more Ericsson-looking cradle. From the rust patterns it used the same transfers as the BTMC model. Nothing further is known about this model or the factory that produced it, and any information would be appreciated. Restoration by Anthony Falzon.
Above: From Welles in Germany, this locally assembled model uses many Eiffel parts in a construction that appears to be a hybrid of Eiffel and skeletal phones.
1. Allsop F C "Telephones Their Construction and Fitting" London 1897
2. Allsop F C "Telephones Their Construction and Fitting" London 1917
3. Bell & Wilson "Practical Telephony" London 1902
4. Western Electric catalogs, various (mostly fragments).