The National Telephone Company of Britain
The National Telephone Company of Britain came about as a result of two American
companies moving into the British market. It ended up with the British Post
Office taking them over in an attempt to keep revenue and local ownership. The
early history of the National is tied up with the conflicts over the early telephone
patents, so a brief review of the history of the telephone is in order.
In July 1875 Elisha Gray patented an electromagnetic receiver a metal
diaphragm resting on two poles of an electromagnet. It didnt work well
as such, but his patent did cover the principle that later became the familiar
Bell receiver, after being refined and developed by American Bell.
Feb 14 1876 Bell patented his gallows telephone. It was inefficient
and he later abandoned it, but it got him the patent and the credit. Elisha
Grey lodged a caveat on the same day, but some hours later.
Bell changed tack to variable resistance using acidulated water, which he had
included as an aside in his patent application. This one worked, but in such
a random way that he concluded it could not be made reliable and returned to
the magneto-induction method described in his original patent.
Berliner applied for a patent on June 4 1877 on a transmitter that
involved loose contact between a metal ball and a metal diaphragm. Thomas
Edison and David
Hughes in England were working along the same lines. Edison applied
for a patent on April 27 1877. Berliner eventually won the legal case that resulted
in 1886. Berliners patent described varying pressure between two
electrodes in constant contact, varied by the pressure of sound a very
wide-ranging description. He assigned this patent to the American Bell Telephone
Company for development.
Edisons patent covered contacts of plumbago or a similarly inferior
conductor. This included carbon. After various appeals to the courts,
Berliners patent was held in 1897 to cover metal electrodes only. This
left Edisons patent to cover what would be the basis of most transmitters
for the next century. He assigned the patent rights to the Western Union telegraph
company, who used it to develop their own telephones. Bell sued them for patent
In 1878 Francis
Blake developed on Berliners idea and produced a single contact
transmitter using a carbon pellet and a bead of platinum on an iron diaphragm.
He patented the transmitter in 1879 and assigned the rights to American Bell
in exchange for shares in the company. This suited American Bell, who were running
short on funds due to the vast amount of litigation between the various patent
holders. They put the Blake transmitter into production. Despite its drawbacks
it was sensitive and reasonably reliable, and better than anything else that
Bell had at the time.
Henry Hunnings, a British clergyman, applied for a British patent on a new
transmitter in 1878, and for an American patent in 1881. It used a metal diaphragm
and a rigid metal backplate, and the gap between them was filled with carbon
powder. It conflicted with Edisons patents, but the Bell company experimented
with it for long-distance transmission, an area where the Blake did not perform
Finally, Anthony White, a Bell company engineer, developed the Solid Back transmitter
using carbon granules sealed inside a metal cup , with a diaphragm closing the
front. He patented this in 1892. Bell eventually dropped the Blake and used
the Solid Back transmitter thereafter.
The Bell company was forced to vigorously defend its patents against all comers,
especially the giant Western Union company. In the U.S. courts the arguments
lasted for years. Western Union developed its own telephones using Edison and
Gray designs. With their financial backing they could probably have won the
battle, but they were faced with a hostile takeover of the company and did not
have the time or resources to continue the court battles. Western Union dropped
out of the battle and assigned all their patents and rights to American Bell
in return for a percentage of revenue. This included the valuable Edison carbon-transmitter
patent. This left American Bell with all the patents they needed to build workable
telephones, and left Edison with nothing but minor glory.
With the value of the telephone now being proven by immense growth, Edison was
spurred to do something about this. He now had to invent a new kind of telephone
if he was to share in the industry he had helped create. He also had to expand
overseas , where American Bell were selling telephones as fast as they could
Britain a new market
and Europe were logical places to start. In Britain, Frederic
Gower had patented a carbon-pencil transmitter that (in Europe, at
least) got around the Bell-held Edison patents. It was based on a Hughes
carbon-pencil transmitter, which had already been widely published and may have
preceded the Edison carbon-contact patent. Edison developed and patented a Chalk
Receiver to go with it. It used a rotating drum of chalk soaked
in potassium iodide to produce sound from a diaphragm. Although it needed to
be constantly rotated by the user, it worked reasonably well. In 1879 Edison
formed the Edison Telephone Company of London, Ltd to market his new phone.
He competed directly with The Telephone Company Ltd (Bells Patents). This competition
soon became obviously pointless, especially when they began litigation against
each other over patent infringement. Both companies knew how long and expensive
litigation could be. There were other incentives to cooperate. Their customers
could not connect to an opposition companys customer. Telephone lines
were being needlessly duplicated. Phones were being made from inefficient designs.
Customers could have to advertise two numbers instead of one. On May 13, 1880,
the two companies merged to become the United Telephone Company Ltd. They adopted
Bell equipment as their standard, as the new company now held all the patents
In 1881 United and the Gower Bell Telephone Company formed a new company to
manufacture their telephones and equipment, called the Consolidated Telephone
Construction and Maintenance Company Ltd.
Edison and Gower also formed the Edison Gower-Bell Telephone Company of Europe
Ltd to market Edison phones in all Europe except France, Turkey, and Greece.
American Bell set up a manufacturing company based in Antwerp , so the cordial
competition resumed. The Edison company appeared to have learned its lesson
in London, however. In France, for instance, Societe du Telephone Edison was
formed in 1879 to market an Edison/Ader phone in Paris. In 1880, less than six
months later, they amalgamated with Societe du Telephone Gower and the Soulerin
Company to become Societe Generale des Telephones. Bell had already set up the
Compagnie des Telephones, using their Blake-Bell phones, and they also joined
in the amalgamation. The directors were Gower and Roosevelt, local telephone
engineers Ader and Soulerin, and a representative from the Credit Immobilier
The political implications were interesting. In Britain, the Post Office realised
that there could be a potential loss of revenue for their telegraph service
and lobbied to have the telephone brought under their control. In France, however,
the Government knew that they did not have the money to compete against the
private companies. It allowed them free rein, but under licence conditions.
Albert Cochery, the Post Office and Telegraph Minister, said in 1879
At this time it was difficult to know much about this new application
.Let alone calculate the cost of setting up telephone networks.
This being the case, the Government could not envisage taking on all the responsibility
and the costs involved in such networks. On the other hand, it could not deprive
the public of a service which it could not supply. The ministers therefore decided
to leave future developments up to the private sector while maintaining a state
Quite a contrast in attitudes. In France each license was to last five years.
The licensee would pay 10% of their gross returns to the Government, which could
issue other competing licenses or set up their own company. Annual fees would
be set by the Government. The Government would set up and service the trunk
network. (In spite of this, in 1899 the Government took over the private telephone
companies by force and nationalised them.)
Back in Britain
In Britain there seemed to be an official dislike of what was becoming a non-Government-owned
monopoly. Among the Government the first pressures began to claim and exert
some form of control over the new technology. In 1880, the High Court ruled
that a telephone call was really a telegraphic communication and that any company
providing telephone services would require a license from the Post Office to
do so. This was justified on the basis that the Telegraph was a natural
Government monopoly. In the following year the Post Office started to
convert some of its Telegraph offices to Telephone Exchanges. The first was
at Swansea and was opened on March 23 1881. (or 22 October, according to other
sources). They used Gower-Bell
telephones. The phones were built for them by Consolidated. Despite
the name, these phones had no connection with Bell.
The Post Office used the same tactic in later years against the new wireless
technology devised by Marconi. As soon as wireless looked like becoming a commercial
proposition, the Post Office denounced it as a frivolous use of a national
resource and took control by licensing it.
With the license issue sorted out, a number of new firms opened up to service
specific areas. Each firm had a monopoly in its area. The National Telephone
Company came into being, using the assets of the United Telephone Company and
others. This also gave them the Hunnings transmitter. The British rights had
been bought by the United Telephone Company to overcome some of the limitations
of the Blake. This put the National well ahead of the opposition in terms of
quality of the transmitters.
The National was regarded with open suspicion by the Post Office. Its growth
was largely fuelled by buying out its less successful competitors. It was better
funded by its U.S. backers, so it grew faster than the Post Office network.
It was becoming referred to as the American company, due to its
habit of appointing Americans to the Chairman position and using American phones.
With the experience of American Bell to draw on, it was more innovative than
the British Post Office.
The Post Office seemed to deliberately set out to place obstacles in Nationals
way. In 1882 it announced that it would grant licenses for other firms to operate
in the same areas as existing licencees. It would not be in the interest
of the public to create a monopoly in relation to the supply of telephonic communication
said Henry Fawcett, the PostMaster General, in 1882. This ran counter to the
natural monopoly theory of the Telegraph only two years earlier,
but the hypocrisy of this apparently escaped Mr Fawcett. On 1st May 1889 the
National Telephone Company was to be re-formed by a proposed amalgamation of
the United, the National, and the Lancashire and Cheshire Telephone Companies.
The new company would have had a paid up capital of four million pounds and
23585 lines. The Post Office refused the new company a license on the grounds
that it was not empowered to license amalgamated companies, only new ones. The
answer was for the National to absorb the others under its own license, rather
The Post Office also in the same year
encouraged local Corporations (Councils) to set up competing companies. Six Corporations
tried. One by one they failed, and were mostly bought out by the National. Only
one survives today, in Hull. As a matter of interest, in Hull by 1911 the Hull
Corporation system had 3000 customers, the National 9000, and the Post Office
50. The Post Office, however, charged each licensee ten percent of their gross
income, as in France. A race for growth now began in earnest. In 1890 National
proceeded to buy out the Northern District Company (1551 lines), South of England
Telephone Co (3255 lines), and the Western Counties and South Wales in 1892 (a
further 4027 lines). These purchases put a strain on its finances and led to it
raising its rates in many towns. This did not pass without public protest. The
Post Office in its turn used its revenue to buy overseas cable companies and submarine
cable laying ships to expand the telegraph system, not the telephone network.
Left: Manchester Exchange about 1904
In 1891 the National built the first trunk circuit between London and
Birmingham. Trunk lines to this point had been completely ignored by the Post
Office (conveniently, since they would have competed directly with the Telegraph).
The Beginning of the End
1892 was a bad year for the
National. Complaints were rising about the quality of their service, the background
noise, the prices, and the massive amounts of wire being strung through the cities.
Their attempts to obtain right-of-way for underground cables were being obstructed
by Councils, Corporations, and the Post Office. The bulk of their right-of-way
was held subject to a six-month notice of removal. The Bell/Western Electric and
Consolidated phones they were using were proving increasingly unpopular on price,
quality and styling grounds, compared with other phones available from European
countries. On 22nd March, Bills were presented in Parliament that would at least
allow the National some relief in the matter of cable easements. The PostMaster
General opposed the Bills, and cited the wide public unhappiness with the National
system. This was strange, as a move to underground cables would have improved
the service. It would have allowed National to use two-wire metallic circuits
for its customers and remove the induction interference that was causing the noise
on its earth-return lines. In truth, the Post Office was experiencing a noticeable
drop in Telegraph revenue and was determined to do something about it. The PostMaster
also announced that the Government would buy out all of the Nationals trunk
network by compulsory purchase. Henceforth all trunk routes would be provided
and serviced by the Post Office, in a move similar to that which had happened
in France some years earlier.
This was, in some ways, a benefit to the
National. Their funds could now be used to improve their local networks, although
they lost the increasing Trunk Call revenue. The Bell patents had expired in 1890;
patents that National had administered for Bell in Britain. They were no longer
tied to Bell, and in 1898 they placed an order for one hundred thousand telephones
from L M Ericsson in Sweden.
In 1899 the Government, disregarding the
experiences of the private companies some years before, announced that they would
set up a competing telephone network in London. This meant that some customers
would have to go back to advertising two numbers again. Private companies could
now only build lines up to 5 miles from a city centre. In provincial towns, competition
with the National would be left up to local Corporations. The Post Office would
open small country telephone exchanges in unserviced areas where they could tap
into a nearby trunk line. Showing that they could still flog a dead horse, they
called the enabling legislation The Telegraph Act.
In 1903, in an attempt
to attract more customers, the Post Office introduced the first night rate telephone
calls. A subscriber could call for six minutes for the same price as for three
minutes, provided he called after eight p.m. Was the Post Office finally accepting
that the telephone was here to stay?
In the same year, the National
announced a joint venture with L M Ericssons to build telephones in Britain at
their works at Beeston. The National had been Ericssons biggest customer
for some time, taking almost half the Swedish plants production. Ericssons
needed a new factory, and that factory should be in Britain to take advantage
of the National and British Post Office contracts and colonial markets that could
be opened to them. The old National repair works at Beeston was enlarged dramatically,
financed jointly by Ericssons and National. The timing was unfortunate.
With the Post Office finally coming to grips with the telephone and devoting enough
money to see to its expansion, the end was in sight for the National. In 1905
the Post Office announced that Nationals license to operate would terminate
in 1912. They would then buy out its networks and take over its customers. National
stopped taking on new customers, stating that it would be necessary to recoup
any new investment by 1911. The ensuing years were devoted to linking each others
exchanges, and arranging interconnection between their customers. National did
little new infrastructure work, using the Post Offices cables, buildings
and equipment where possible. It did, however, buy out the ailing Swansea Corporation
Telephone Service in 1907. The remaining corporation, Hull, was allowed by the
Post Office to extend its license on the proviso that it bought out the National
services in its area and only serviced that area previously controlled by the
National. This saved the Post Office the cost of buying out the National infrastructure.
Ericssons bought out Nationals share of the Beeston factory. In
1912 the Post Office completed the buyout of the rest of the National for over
twelve million pounds. They inherited a backlog of over 10,000 very unhappy waiting
customers. The only remaining private telephone company in Britain was Hull. The
National Telephone Company was legislated out of existence.
Or was it? Such a large company could not pass without leaving some
traces. To this day there is at least one telephone exchange building with NTC
carved into its front stonework. Cast iron manhole lids still sometimes show the
NTC logo. Many miles of Britains cable conduits run in hollow cement blocks
imported from Sweden and laid by National in the 1890s.
the National and its predecessors created a large part of British telephone history
the first telephone exchange in Britain was opened by The Telephone Company
National was the first to allocate the number 000 for all
police, fire and ambulance calls. The Government actually agreed to this, and
it has become almost universal.
The first Public Telephone kiosk
was also due to United. The British Post Office banned them in 1882, and was later
forced to open its own.
The Telephone Company issued the first British
phone book in 1880.
The National introduced a system in 1884 where subscribers could pay their
bills by buying special National stamps and saving them until the phone bill
arrived. The stamps could then be stuck to the bill and mailed in as payment.
A similar system was in use in Australia in the 1980s, and may still exist as
far as I know. Initially the stamp scheme infuriated the Post Office. The stamp
did not carry the portrait of the Queen, as was fit and proper, but that of
the Chairman of National, Colonel Robert Rainsford Jackson. The Post Office
received a ten percent commission on all calls, so Post office stamps were also
used to attach to tally sheets at the Public Telephone kiosks. Subscribers could
also make calls from a kiosk and have them billed to their home phone. The stamp
system was discontinued when National introduced another innovation, the coin
telephone or payphone, in 1891.
The first fully automatic switchboard used
in Britain was patented by a National engineer, Mr Dane Sinclair. It was installed
in Glasgow in 1883.
National helped develop the Electrophone system,
Britain's earliest public broadcasting system. The broadcasts were transmitted live
on Nationals highest quality phone lines and then broadcast
to subscribers phones on request from the Electrophone exchange. This system
became the forerunner of todays radio broadcasting stations.
despite the Post Offices assertions that they could provide a better service
than the National, the last National-built magneto exchanges were only taken out
of service in the 1950s.
The philosophy of private entrepreneurs versus
Government control is one that is still argued in economics circles today. For
all its weaknesses, the National gave Britain a lead on many other countries in
the new technology. Manufacturers sprang up to support it, business took advantage
of it, Governments taxed it. Telephone exports became a new British industry,
and British engineers developed the hardware at least as well as their American
The National and its predecessors
used a small but significant range of telephones during their life. The phones
can be divided into five groups Bell / Western Electric, Consolidated, Ericsson,
Sterling and Peel Conner. It is very hard to separate the first two groups.
The Bell phones were the conventional tall three box wall phones with Blake
transmitters initially, but they diverged from their American design as competition
and better technology was introduced. Towards the end of the Bell period a distinctly
European range of phones had been designed. At least one of these, an attractive
little CB wall phone, was taken into the British Post Office as their Tel No.
1 when they took over National.
Consolidated manufactured a very small
range of updated Bell phones, as well as producing one or two original designs
of their own. Their career was short, however, as the National soon started buying
The Ericsson phones were standard Swedish models at
first. The only difference was the National Telephone Co. transfers on the phones
instead of Ericsson ones. Where a logo was used, it was usually a bell-shaped
transfer with National in the centre. The bell shape was the same logo used by
the American Bell company, and this may have been seen as flaunting the American
origins of the company in the face of the British. One noticeable difference was
on the Ericsson skeletal phone. National asked that the teardrops on the cradle
be omitted, and that the phones metalwork be finished in a gunmetal black
lacquer. This was a maintenance move the teardrops were fragile, easily
lost and added to the cost, and the black lacquer would make refurbishing of the
phones easier. The British Post Office continued this policy for their own skeletal
phones. The National also bought a modified version of WE's early candlestick phone, nicknamed the Golfball. This was also used by the BPO.
National bought in phones from Sterling and Peel Conner
to fill specific market niches such as intercoms and mining phones. Some of these
designs are shown in the following pages to give an idea of the range available
to Nationals customers. For a more comprehensive listing, visit Bob Freshwaters
website at http://www.britishtelephones.com/menutntc.htm.
When the BPO took over National in 1912, most of the National phones were adopted
into the Post Office system and gradually phased out .
Meyer Ralph O. Old Time Telephones! Technology, Restoration and Repair New York 1995
Emmerson A. : Old Telephones Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire
Allsop F C Telephones: Their Construction and Fitting London
Freshwater Bob The Telephone File Website
Nibart Frederic Freds Old Phones Website
Bruckman Neil A British Telephone Stamp of 1884 Website
Jolly Ian Last Reminders of the National Telephone Company
Marshall Graham The National Telephone Company of Great Britain March 1994 Australasian Telephone Collectors Society Newsletter
Beauchamp Christopher Intellectual Property, corporate monopoly and judge-made law: the telephone patents in Britain and the U.S.A. 1880-1894 Rutgers University The Edison Papers Website http://edison.rutgers.edu
Wallsten S. Ringing In The 20th Century: The Effects of State Monopolies, Private Ownership, and Operating Licenses on Telecommunications in Europe, 1892-1914 Stanford Institute For Economic Policy Research, Stanford University, Stanford. June 2001
Typical National Telephones
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