A Look at the Most Complex Telephone Network from the 1880s

In the late 1800s, telephones were reaching a point of mass adoption, but one problem persisted: Engineers couldn’t bury the phone lines.

At this time, understanding how one might bury phone lines and cables eluded city planners and engineers, so they were left with only one option, to string the wires from house to house. When you couple this issue with the fact that all phone lines at the time had a physical connection with a central switching station where an operator sat, you are left with an insanely complex network of wires.

Stockholm, Sweden quickly adopted phones and eventually became the largest phone network in the world.

Bell telephone was the first company in the area, but their rates were excessively large due to the nature of the new technology. They charged anywhere from $1000 to $2000 USD in today’s money for a subscription to their service.

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But Bell, with their high rates, soon saw a competitor in this market, the Stockholm General Telephone Company (SAT). Founded in 1883 by Henrik Tore Cedergren, it’s mission was to put a telephone in every single household. The company charged low fees and subscriptions started increasing by the hundreds. By 1886, between Bell and SAT, Stockholm had 4,832 subscribers, making it the city with the most telephones in the entire world. By 1887, SAT became the world’s largest telephone company and bought out Bell’s business in the area in 1888.

As business grew, so did the number of telephone lines running through the city. SAT opened a central phone tower, named Telefontornet, in 1887. It consisted of 5,500 telephone lines strung to everywhere in the city. The collective lengths of the cabling were 5,000 kilometers, and it created quite the wiring mess. Locals even complained that the tower and wires blocked out the sun.

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Since each phone was physically connected to the central hub by a single wire, if someone lost service to their telephone, technicians would have to trace the wiring throughout the city to find the problem. It made for a managerial nightmare.

The tower facilitated the largest and most complex network of telephone lines in the world for many years. As public outcry about the horrendous-looking tower grew in its early years, SAT announced a competition to decorate the tower. In 1890, it was ultimately renovated to look more regal and complaints dwindled.

The need for this tower was paramount in the late 1800s, but by the early 20th century, the technology was growing outdated – fast.

Engineers figured out how to lay cables underground and locals preferred the process due to its hidden nature. By 1913, the entire network in Sweden and most of the world was laid underground and the tower was disconnected. It stood as a landmark for many decades until in 1952, it caught fire and was demolished a year later.

Image Source: Concerning Reality

So, that’s the story of an antiquated network of telephone lines strung above Stockholm marking one of the greatest technological achievements at the time. Innovation isn’t always pretty, but it’s certainly fascinating.

Trevor is a civil engineer (B.S.) by trade and an accomplished writer with a passion for inspiring everyone with new and exciting technologies. He is also a published children’s book author and the producer for the YouTube channel Concerning Reality.

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