European Bell and Western Electric Phones

Telephones from the Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company (they were renamed Western Electric in 1882) factories in Europe are usually known as British Western Electric. This is unfortunate since it plays down the important role BTMC played in the development of telephony in Europe.

Europe was an early target for the U.S.manufacturers. As early as 1880 the Bell company had established the International Bell Telephone Company in Brussels to handle sales of fully imported telephones and switchboards. Enos Barton had visited Europe in the same year to report on the possibility of Western Electric moving into Europe. At this time Western Electric had been supplying the Western Union Telegraph company with telephones, but when they lost the patent war with Bell, Western Electric found itself without a customer for its phones. In the event, Bell bought into Western Electric to supply its telephones.

Theodore Vail , the head of the Bell company, was keen on exporting to Europe but was convinced by Barton and Gardiner Hubbard that European manufacture was the only solution that would overcome the local nationalistic feelings and the high cost of freight and import tariffs.

On 26th April 1882 the Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company opened a factory in Antwerp in Belgium. It was 45% owned by Bell and 55% by Western Electric. Initially Ezra Gilliland of Western Electric was sent to Europe to set up and run the company. Once it was running, he returned to the United States. Following a fire that destroyed the factory, Francis Welles was sent over by Western Electric to rebuild. Welles was a college graduate, the first employed by W.E. He was a good choice. He was educated and multilingual, and he set about building a network of factories throughout Europe to give the company a presence in major area. The management board of BTMC now included Francis Welles, Louis de Graaf (the local agent), and a suitable number of prominent local people. Within a year or so the company employed 35 people, and was gaining contracts in a number of European countries. Although the intention was to build the conventional two- and three-box wall phones (initially from imported parts), they soon found that local firms like Ericssons and Siemens Halske were making better, smaller phones in styles that were preferred by the public. For instance, the handset was introduced by Ericssons in 1892. LME built transmitters and receivers small enough for a handset because of their superior magnets. The equivalent Bell units, especially the Blake transmitter, were too bulky to be used in a handset.

The BTMC factory quickly evolved a range of European phones to compete. To some extent they were quite successful. In the earliest models, they apparently used some parts bought in from other manufacturers until they could design their own versions. In others, they copied local styles. Most of these never got back to the U.S., and are now uncommon. In particular, they developed their own desk sets long before the U.S.A. brought them into use. Their first desk handset phone (known in Australia as the Eiffel Tower, a name applied to Ericsson’s Skeletal phone in the U.S.) sold widely through Britain and its colonies and some European countries, but is practically unknown in the United States. It was most likely only produced in the Antwerp factory, and later at the Woolwich factory set up by Western Electric in Britain. By the turn of the century the Antwerp factory had grown to around 700 employees.

Other factories were set up in major cities around Europe. In the highly nationalistic times, a local manufacturing presence was essential if you wanted to gain local contracts. For some time the factories were merely assembly points, using parts sourced from BTMC in Antwerp or the United States or subcontracted out to other local manufacturers. This multiple factory arrangement was the opposite of what Western Electric was working towards in the United States. In the U.S., Western Electric was trying to concentrate their manufacturing into a smaller number of one huge factories to gain the maximum efficiencies from mass production.

In July 1890 Bell sold its share of BTMC to Western Electric, becoming purely an operating company. This left Western Electric as Bell's manufacturer.

In Britain, The Telephone Company in London represented Bell’s interests and held their patents. In 1880 it amalgamated with another company representing rival inventor Thomas Edison, and formed the United Telephone Company. United in turn formed a new company, Consolidated Telephone Construction and Maintenance Ltd, to produce Bell-type phones for the United, and Gower-Bell phones for overseas and British Post Office sales. This company also produced a small range of modified Bell phones for local use. These phones are usually incorrectly identified as Western Electric because of their internal parts. Documentation is poor and few of their phones have survived, so it is often difficult to assign a phone to BTMC Antwerp, Consolidated, or Western Electric’s later British factory. The United eventually became the National Telephone Company, and still bought Bell and Consolidated phones.

In 1903 the National Telephone Company stopped buying WE phones and signed contracts with L M Ericsson instead. The Bell patents they administered had expired so they were now free to do so. The new Western Electric factory at Woolwich, bought on 1st January 1898 to replace an earlier and smaller factory set up in 1883, concentrated on supplying phones, cable and switchboards to the British Post Office and the British colonies, but they also supplied switchboards to the National.

After the First World War, the BPO looked at automation of the telephone network. Western Electric’s Rotary system, based on an earlier Lorimer design, was a strong contender, but the company made the fatal mistake of announcing that they would build the equipment in Antwerp instead of Britain. The BPO would have none of this, so the contract went to the Strowger system sold by Automatic Telephone Manufacturing. Western Electric was limited to producing phones and parts for the system. In spite of BTMC produced the Rotary system in Antwerp for many European countries, and the exchanges have even turned up as far away as New Zealand. BTMC also produced WE's first dial for the Rotary system.

The listing of known European Western Electric phones that follows is neither complete nor, probably, accurate. Where possible the information is from catalog fragments or from photos of specimens. In the case of the catalogs, some of the parts shown are from L M Ericsson and were replaced with WE parts as soon as manufacturing facilities could be set up. Existing phones have undergone modification through their working life. Details, model numbers and dates are uncertain, but the listing represents a starting point for future research. A complete unmodified original European phone is uncommon. As the parts failed in use they were often replaced with Ericsson parts. Ericsson designed two transmitters specifically to replace the Blake transmitters used in Western Electric's early wall telephones.

BTMC and British Western Electric seem to have been more inclined to experiment than their U.S. parent. Some early phones use cast aluminium cradles and transmitter and receiver shells as an alternative to the more expensive machined and plated brass used by other makers. They introduced steel cased phones before the U.S., and their early handsets have already been mentioned. Their styling was a departure from the U.S. boxy wallsets, although their designs were always less elaborate than, say, L M Ericssons. As in the U.S., their emphasis seems to have been on improving the reliability of the components. WE components are known to have been produced, either directly for WE or under license, by Sterling, GEC and Peel Conner in Britain. When some Western Electric pattern phones were adopted by the British Post Office as their standard models, many other companies started production of lookalike parts and phones.

In 1925 the Bell company divested itself of its foreign operations, including BTMC and the European WE factories. The factories were sold to Sosthenes Behn’s company International Telephone & Telegraph and were renamed Standard Telephones and Cables in Britain and Standard Electric elsewhere. The Antwerp factory, however, retained its original BTMC name. By 1927 the factory had over 10,000 staff. The Antwerp factory continued in production, and was eventually absorbed into Alcatel.









Early Bell & Western Electric Phones

Consolidated Phones

British Western Electric


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