ELEKTRISK BUREAU OF NORWAY

by Bob Estreich


The history of telephones in Norway is similar to that of many countries, but Elektrisk Bureau, their electrical manufacturing company, briefly produced some very attractive and distinctive telephones before being swamped by the global telephone companies.

Initially, the various city governments gave licenses to a single operator, usually the Bell company, on a per-town basis. In Kristiana (it was later renamed Oslo) the local officials had not issued an exclusive license. There was dissatisfaction with Bell’s high prices and their lack of interest in servicing rural areas. Local telephone associations were set up to meet the need. In Kristiana a group of businessmen set up Kristiana Telefonforening (Kristiana Telephone Company) in 1881 to compete with the Bell company. It was headed by Carl Soderberg who was also an Ericsson agent. In 1882, with twelve other local businessmen, he started a company to manufacture telephones for Norway, using local woodwork and Ericsson parts. The company was called Elektrisk Bureau. At this time Norway and Sweden were loosely united following a war with Denmark in 1814. It would have been easier and more efficient to buy all the telephones from “local” firm Ericssons, but there was obviously a certain amount of Norwegian pride involved.

The EB telephones of this period are Ericsson-based but with an elaborate standard of decoration rarely seen in early telephones. This may have been partly in response to local styles, and partly to stand out from the plain and boxy Bell phones. Professor Lasse Brunnstrom notes that this style has its roots in Norwegian folk art, especially “medieval stave church portals and traditional wood-carving”.

  • Picture 1: A 1885 model wall phone.
  • Picture 2: Another 1885 model. This desk phone is found finished in silver or gold, although a good specimen is exceptionally rare.

    The private companies with their cheaper phones and lower profits undercut Bell’s prices, leading to greater use of the telephone. Unfortunately, as in Britain with the National Telephone Company and the BPO, competition also meant incompatible systems, no connection between subscribers to different systems, and massive amounts of wire cluttering the streets. In 1886 the local government announced that there would be no more expansion unless the two companies, Bell and Kristiana, amalgamated. They sold their networks to a new joint stock company with the local government as the main shareholder.

  • Picture 3: 1893 wall phone with cast iron backboard.
  • Picture 4: 1885 single cell wallphone.

    This worked in Kristiana, but in the rest of Norway the problem continued. The national Government decided, like the British government some years later, to combine all the competing companies into a nationally-owned network. In 1899 they gave Telegrafverkets the sole right to run telephone communications in Norway. Telegrafverkets started buying out the private companies, a process that was still going on until the 1950s.

    Elektrisk Bureau still produced telephones as well as other electrical gear but they found it necessary to export as well. They were successful in this and production of telephones reached 25,000 a year by the late 1880s. Relations with Ericssons remained friendly. When the Glasgow Corporation wanted to buy Ericsson telephones, LME decided this would be unethical – they were already supplying telephones to the National Telephone Company, Glasgow’s competitor. The order was passed to EB, who produced an Ericsson desk phone lookalike. When Ericssons was unable to provide enough Commonwealth Ericsson wall phones to the Australian Post Office, EB supplied quantities of their similar phone known in Australia as the Kristiana.

    In 1905 a political crisis gave Norway its independence from Sweden, and EB found itself Norway’s national supplier. Its telephones of this time are much simplified, in line with the need to increase production and reduce costs – these problems plagued all manufacturers at this time. They are still based on Ericsson designs.

  • Picture 5: A telephone from the 1890s – 1914 period. Note the simpler stamped steel cradle, introduced around World War 1 as an emergency and economy measure.
  • Picture 6: This model, also from the 1890s - 1914 period, was used in Australia in side handset form when supplies from Sweden could not meet demand.

    After the Depression the European political scene changed. IT&T had bought out the Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company plant at Antwerp and renamed the Western Electric companies Standard Electric. They were actively competing against other major companies like Siemens and Ericssons, and EB looked like a small but profitable takeover target. EB had already started buying some telephones and parts from Standard Electric, and briefly released a small steel-boxed desk set in auto and CB form using Standard Electric handsets.

    L M Ericssons bought a controlling interest in the company, probably as much to keep Standard Electric out as to keep a profitable customer. From this point EB became a manufacturer of Ericsson phones rather than an independent producer. They began production of Ericssons’ first bakelite telephone in 1931, the DBH1001, It was designed by engineer Johann Christian Bierknes of EB and Jean Heiberg, an industrial designer. This innovative phone set the pattern for bakelite telephones for nearly fifty years. It was noticed by the Prince of Wales at an exhibition in Stockholm in 1932, and he selected it for use in his home. The British Post Office adopted the design, although they kept their 164 handset. In this form it appeared all over the world in various British-influenced countries.

  • Picture 7: Tinbox style desk phone for Rikstelefon, early 1900s. This phone, in an Ericsson lookalike version, was also sold to the Glasgow Corporation for its telephone network.
  • Picture 8: Two typical steel-box desk phones using Standard Electric parts.

    EB was still producing general electronic gear like wireless sets and electric elements. Ericssons added a cable-making plant, and EB grew well during the 1930s. It turned out, however, to have a long-term weakness. A small company like EB could not afford the research costs across a large field of products and EB soon fell behind its competitors. In areas like automatic exchanges it could only import Ericsson designs. This displeased the Government’s telephone administrator, now Televerket, who wanted a truly local company. This situation occurred throughout the world, including Australia. The sheer cost of designing new systems was beyond the financial reach of many smaller companies.

  • Picture 9: 1931 DBH1001 bakelite table model as designed by LM Ericssons.

    By the 1970s, EB was floundering. It was still owned by Ericssons, and its main competitor was Standard Telefon og Kabelfabrik (STK), the local firm owned by IT&T. Between them the two controlled Norway’s telephone industry, but it was not a happy arrangement. Before they issued contracts for the modernization of Norway’s telephone system, Televerket urged the two companies to amalgamate and form a single local firm. The companies declined to do this, preferring to represent their parent companies’ interests. The government therefore went straight to the parent companies and others and abandoned their “buy local” policy. EB missed out on mobile telephony and the contract for Norway went direct to Ericssons. In 1983 the contract for the new digital exchanges went to Alcatel. Ericssons took over EB’s telephony role and the company ceased to be a telephone manufacturer.

    In 1987 the firm was sold to Swedish company ASEA, and in turn amalgamated into Swiss multinational Brown Boveri. The Elektrisk Bureau name has been retained for the local factory.

    References

  • Brunnstrom, Lasse “Telephone Design a Nordic Arena”
  • Bob Freshwater’s British Phones website: http://web.ukonline.co.uk/freshwater/t300info.htm
  • Reuters, August 18 1987
  • Christensen, Sverre A, doctoral dissertation: “Switching Relations. The rise and fall of the Norwegian Telecom Industry,” 2006
  • Wickman M “The Ericsson Files” 2001

    My thanks to Tony Falzon for photos. He has transfer sets for restoration of the early phones.