By the late 19th century, the miracle device called the telephone had been invented but the simple concept of undergrounding telephone cables had eluded engineers. Clumps of telephone wires strung from monstrous towers hung above the heads of pedestrians in all major cities with a sizable number of subscribers.
Telephone service was expensive at that time, and only the wealthy could afford it. In Sweden, the first public telephone exchange was opened in the capital city Stockholm, in 1880, by the Bell Telephone Company. It originally had only 121 subscribers. The telephone company charged subscribers between 160 and 280 Swedish Krona, depending on the subscriber’s location and distance to the exchange. This was equivalent to paying a subscription fee of 9,000 to 16,000 Krona (USD 1,100 to USD 1,966) in today’s value, which was a very high rate.
The Telephone tower in 1890.
The Bell Telephone Company with their high rates soon got a competitor in Stockholm General Telephone Company (SAT), which was founded in 1883 by the engineer and businessman Henrik Tore Cedergren. His mission was to put a telephone in every household. Cedergren’s charged very low fees for a connection and monthly subscription, and the number of subscribers increased rapidly. By 1886, Stockholm had more telephones than any of the major cities in the world, with 4,832 subscribers, including about 1,600 at Bell Telephone Company. In 1887, SAT became the world’s largest telephone company, large enough to buy out Bell Company’s business in Stockholm in 1888.
In this early days of telephony, there were no substations and every subscriber was physically connected to the central exchange with an overhead wire. The Stockholm telephone exchange had thousands of wires converging in from every direction. A massive tower held these wires together.
This iconic Phone Tower, or Telefontornet, was opened in 1887, and had over 5,500 telephone lines whose collective length came to around 5,000 kilometers. As you can see from these pictures, it was quite a mess, and the network was extremely vulnerable to the elements. The locals thought the tower looked hideous and even complained that it darkened out the sun.
With the public and the press lambasting the tower at every opportunity, the telephone company decided that the tower needed a makeover. A decoration competition was announced, and in 1890 the tower got the four corner turrets. At all major events in Stockholm, the city’s flags were hoisted there.
However, by the turn of the 19th century, the tower was already on its path to obsolescence. The telephone company realized that laying cables underground was a far more elegant solution than stringing them from towers. By 1913, the entire network had gone underground and the Telefontornet lost its function. The remaining shell stood as a landmark for the several decades. At one point, the telephone company hung advertisement banners from the tower. In 1952, the tower caught fire which weakened the structure, and was demolished the following year on safety grounds.