ELEKTRISK BUREAU OF NORWAY
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 exclusive licenses (mostly to 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 widespread dissatisfaction with Bell's prices, and with 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. The decision was interesting. 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. (5) In spite of this, EB always had a cordial relationship with Ericssons.
The EB telephones of this period are Ericsson-based but usually have 3-magnet generators from Bell Telephone Manufacturing or Western Electric. They have 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 the ornate style has its roots in Norwegian folk art, especially "medieval stave church portals and traditional wood-carving" (1)
The private companies with their cheaper telephones and lower profits undercut the Bell prices, leading to reduced charges and 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 wires 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.
This worked in Kristiana, but in the rest of Norway the problem was still there. 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.
Left: Elektrisk Bureau factory, around 1925
Elektrisk Bureau still produced telephones as well as other electrical gear but 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. Their friendly relations with Ericssons helped them pick up sales. When the Glasgow Coporation in Britain wanted Ericsson telephones, Ericssons found it hard to supply them - the National Telephone Company, Glasgow Corporation's competitor, was Ericssons' biggest customer. They tactfully gave the order to EB who produced a lookalike tin box desk set for Glasgow. (6). In the early 1900s Ericssons could not supply enough Commonwealth Ericsson telephones to meet Australia's needs, and EB supplied quantities of the telephone 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.
After the Depression the European political scene was changing. 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 lucrative 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-designed phones rather than an independent producer. They began production of Ericssons' first bakelite telephone in 1931, the DBH1001, It was produced 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 as their 300 series, although they kept their 164 handset. In this form it appeared all over the world in various British-influenced countries. (2)
The result of the buyout was that Ericssons and Standard Electric between them had an almost monopoly grip on the Norwegian industry. Research in Norway was minimal, and the companies became sales outlets for their parent companies.
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 be 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, 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.
By the 1970s, EB was floundering. It was still owned by Ericssons, and its main competitor was still Standard Telefon og Kabelfabrik (STK), the local firm owned by IT&T. Between them the two still controlled Norway's telephone industry, but it was not a happy arrangement. Before they issued contracts for the modernization of Norway's telephone system, the government company Televerket urged the two companies to amalgamate and form a single local firm. The companies declined to do this, preferring to continue to represent their parent companies' interests. It did lead to some increase in research funding by STK, but it wasn't enough. 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.(4)
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.(3)
1. Brunnstrom, Lasse "Telephone Design a Nordic Arena"