Sterling Telephone & Electric
The Sterling Telephone & Electric Company of Britain was an early starter
in the days when electrical devices were a new growth industry. Originally they
were a manufacturer of electrical parts, but they added telephones to their
range in the 1890s. They seemed to have had most success with their range of
small intercoms, and many collectors will have at least one Sterling phone.
Little is known about their origins, but there is no doubt that they were well-financed
and well-run. One of their major customers in the earliest days was Britains
Telephone Company. They supplied the National with a wide range of
their CB desk phones and intercoms, and some of their specialist lines such
as mining and tramway phones. The telephones were built at a factory at Dagenham
that they bought from Morris Arming Tube and Ammunition Company in 1910. They
set about enlarging the factory to handle woodworking, ebonite moulding, metal
turning and electrical wiring. The factory covered more than four acres by the
end of 1910, and was increased gradually to ten acres.
Their catalogues show that
many of their early phones were partly built with components sourced from the
Swedish manufacturer L M Ericsson. This was a common practice for many telephone
manufacturers at the time. During the First World War, these were replaced by
Sterlings own parts. They also bought in complete phones from Ericsson and
Western Electric and simply rebadged them. Finally, they dropped much of their
product range and produced phones to the British Post Offices standard patterns.
Sterling was a general electrical manufacturer rather than a specialist
telephone producer. Their range covered phones, switchboards, and electrical and
telephone equipment and fittings. From early days they also developed wireless
sets to service Marconis new invention. During the First World War Sterling
wireless sets were installed in Royal Air Force spotter planes. They continued
this development after the war and were eventually part of the founding group
of the British Broadcasting Company , the BBC.
They seem to have been able to market their telephone products quite successfully
overseas but this was usually done by a local distributor rather than by Sterling
themselves. Relying on others to sell your product is a dangerous marketing
move. It was in this that they lost out to the better organised companies like
GEC and Ericssons who established direct marketing offices in many of the British
Empire countries to secure their markets.. In the end, the sale of the Sterling
company to Marconis commercial radio company Marconiphone meant the end
of telephone manufacture.
telephones fall into four main groups:
The first group is phones for the public network. The wall phones show a certain
individual style, resulting from the use of common components assembled in different
configurations. Sterlings Model
U262 long-distance phone is a good example of this. The small box
that contains the electronics is used in many other models. The desk phones
show more variation. The Model
U385 is an Ericsson A300 tin box style base fitted with Sterlings
straight-armed cradle and their own handset. The Model
U716 also used their handset on a modified candlestick-type base.
They seem to have preferred handsets for their exchange telephones, but later
they had to go back to the separate transmitter/receiver style when they produced
phones to British Post Office specifications. These specs were based on Western
Electric phones that had proved reliable and compatible with the WE switchboards
in wide use in Britain.
The second and largest group was the Interphones, particularly the Primax models.
Today these would be called switchboards. Early models were fairly basic and
had no secrecy on calls. For this reason they were generally controlled by a
single person such as the manager. One-way signalling, main to extension only,
was standard. The Model
U2115 is an impressive example. Note that it is based around an Ericsson-style
miniature phone to handle the electronics. The Model
U410 is a familiar intercom that is present in many collections.
The extension phones for these systems had incoming signalling only and no automatic
cutoff - this was handled from the switchboard. The Model
U125 is another familiar example of this style of phone. As the internal
use of telephones grew, the Reply and Call system was introduced.
This allowed extension phones to call back to the main switchboard as well as
receive calls. The extension phones of this system are identifiable by the small
signalling pushbutton built into the phone, as seen on the Model
U310 is another distinctive little phone of this type, with its sloping
front and rear-mounted bell. Switchhook hangup also came into use around this
time. Later, secrecy between calls was introduced as well so multiple calls
could be handled at the same time. These systems were not connected to the public
network. In spite of the amount of cabling required they were a very popular
type of phone system.
The third group was the internal point-to-point intercom, also called House
Phones. The Parleyphone range is typical. Model
U61 is an early example. They were basic, mostly consisting of a
wall terminal block with a pushbutton for signalling to the other phone, and
a suspended handset. On the more elaborate models two-way signalling could be
provided, and for the really adventurous a two-extension model was available.
The Parleyphones and other intercoms were widely sold in Australia by firms
like Anthony Horderns. It is interesting to note that when the British Post
Office took over the National Telephone Company they kept these house
phones in use for some time. Handyman books of the time show enthusiastic
homeowners how to convert their internal bell signalling systems to telephone.
Many of the phones could be used on the bigger intercom systems as well, and
were fitted with a pushbutton for signaling as Reply and Call came
into use. Model
U305 is a good example this simple little wooden box desk
phone was introduced in the 1890s with Ericsson cradle and handset, was upgraded
to the Sterling cradle and handset around 1910, was fitted for Reply and Call
and became Model
U510, then was built into a steel case in the late 1910s and became
A fourth and lesser-known group was the Phonopore
models. These were specially designed phones that could handle voice work across
morse telegraph lines without interference to the Morse signals. As such they
appealed to railways worldwide. They could reportedly carry a signal for more
than a hundred miles and appeared to be free of induction and lightning strike
problems. Sterling bought out the Radio, Phonopore and Electricals Company from
Mr C Langdon-Davies, the inventor of the phone, in the very early 1900s and
kept the range going until the 1920s. Because railways workshops tended to keep
repairing and modifying phones long after their usual working life was over,
an original Phonopore is hard to find. In Australia, the last one was taken
out of service in the 1950s. Similar phones were made by Ericssons and others.
Sterling also had a range of specialist phones such as linesmens test
phones, miners phones, and ships phones. The Model U574
is a ships phone for use in noisy locations like enginerooms.
Sterling made a small but useful range of magneto and CB exchange switchboards
as well, but they do not appear to have sold these in great numbers. They completely
missed the potential of automatic telephony, or more likely did not have the
research and development staff to exploit it. It is also possible that their
attention was diverted by continued development of wireless. After the war they
found their sales of telephones were confined to a small portion of the British
Post Offices needs, and there was no market for their telephone exchanges.
They diversified into newer types of electrical gear like headphones (radio
head telephones), but they could not compete with larger companies like
Britains General Electric Company.
In 1926 they sold out
to Marconiphone and the factory was turned entirely to production of Marconis
valve wireless sets. The GEC company picked up what was left of Sterlings
telephone business. GEC had been selling Sterling phones for some time, rebadging
them with GEC model numbers. For some years the Sterling factory was quite successful in
its new field. The complex was enlarged to eighteen acres by 1925, with its own
power station, gasworks, printers, fire station, first aid service, canteens,
recreation hall, and undercover storage for seven hundred staff bicycles.
Over the years, production needs changed and the huge estate and factory complex
was broken up and sold off. In the 1970s Ford bought about a quarter of the
complex as an assembly line for production of the Ford Capri. The Sterling name
remained, however, and kept turning up in unexpected ways. As an example, one
of the engineering plants on the estate produced the Sterling submachine gun
during World War 2 for paratroops and commandos.
There are nearly a hundred different phones shown in the catalogues available
to me. This shows that Sterling was not just a small maker of intercoms, but a
major manufacturer in the early days of the industry. In Australia we mostly see
their little intercom phones, and I think they are greatly underestimated because
Wedlake G E C SOS The Story of Radio Communication Melbourne, 1973"
Sterling catalogues : various
Plessey Company History, http://strowger-net.telefoonmuseum.com/tel_index.html
Bateman J History of the Telephone in New South Wales 1980
General Electric Company Catalogue 1935
Freshwater Bob Website Telephone File http://www.britishtelephones.com/sterling/ster1.htm
Howson J. Dagenham and Broadcasting , undated. Courtesy Dagenham
Dargan James Morse to Micro - A History of NSW Railways 1988 Sydney
Identifying Sterling components
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