International Bell Telephone Company

International Bell Telephone Company

The International Bell Telephone Company (IBTC) of Brussels, Belgium, was created in 1879 by the National Bell Telephone Company of Boston, Massachusetts, United States, initially to sell imported telephones and switchboards in Continental Europe.[1][2]

The International Bell rapidly evolved into an important European telephone service provider and manufacturer, with major operations in several countries.[3]


International Bell Telephone Company organization

In 1879 Gardiner Hubbard, father-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell and the first president of the Bell Telephone Company, founded the International Bell Telephone Company in order to promote sales of its telephone equipment throughout Europe. During his tour of the continent the Belgian government offered him the greatest financial incentives to establish his European headquarters in their country.[1]

The International Bell Telephone Company (IBTC) shortly evolved into a holding company for its various telephone service and production divisions, with its major manufacturing arm being the Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company (BTM), which was founded in Antwerp, Belgium, on 26 April 1882.[4] BTM was created as a joint venture by the International Bell Telephone Company of New York and the Western Electric Company of Chicago.[5] BTM then established la Compagnie Belge du Téléphone Bell (Bell Telephone Company of Belgium) in the same year as its Belgian operating subsidiary, one of several companies that provided telephone services in the country, the others having evolved principally from telegraph carriers.[3]

The corporate parent (IBTC) also established multiple other divisions as national companies across Continental Europe and Russia.[3]

Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company

The Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company (BTM) was opened on 26 April 1882 as the principal manufacturing arm to assist the International Bell with its growth throughout all of Europe, where many countries had nationalistic trade policies favouring domestic suppliers. BTM was owned 45% by American Bell Telephone, and 55% by Bell's major U.S. supplier, Western Electric (of which Bell was also a majority stakeholder). It was created for "...the production, sale, purchase and leasing of equipment for telephony and telegraphy and everything directly or indirectly related to electricity"[1] Later, as demand for services bloomed, the Bell Telephone Company had insufficient operating funds to quickly increase the telephone exchange network, resulting in Western Electric buying out all 45% of the shares held by Bell in 1890.[1]

Ezra Gilliland of Western Electric helped establish the manufacturing arm, at which point a young university educated, multilingual American, Francis R. Welles, took over its leadership, with the title of "Administrateur Delegue".[2] Welles would lead the overseas BTM division for the next 30 years, assisted also by Louis De Graaf, an authorised agent.[1][5] Subsidiary manufacturing plants were started up in major cities throughout all of Europe, since national policies favoured local manufacturers.[2]

In the year after its founding BTM employed 35 people, and its workshops were accommodated within a small plant at No. 4 Boudewijnstraat, Antwerp.[1] By 1885, the Bell Antwerp facility had completed its conversion from importing telephones and switchboards from the U.S., to local manufacturing, with production more than doubling annually as BTM began to supply their other divisions throughout Europe. By 1900, BTM was also its new parent's (AT&T) main supplier of telephone systems to Asia, the Middle East and South America, and the facility had increased to a staff of 700 operating from a greatly expanded plant.[1]

The Antwerp facility was largely responsible for introducing the telephone to much of Europe, with its first manual and rotary dial telephone exchanges. In 1884 the very first European intercity line was created between Antwerp and Brussels, and in 1887 the first international line in Europe was opened between Brussels and Paris.[1]

By the end of the nineteenth century European governments moved to nationalize their phone companies, and the telephone service concessions of la Compagnie Belge du Téléphone Bell were allowed to expire or were purchased by the Belgian government.[1]

Early European expansion


The first telephone exchanges in Belgium were opened in 1878. A company was formed in Brussels in 1879, and others followed. Competition was recognised as unsatisfactory, and the various companies were encouraged to amalgamate. The Compagnie Belge du Téléphone Bell (the Bell Telephone Company of Belgium) was formed in 1882, as the Belgian subsidiary of the International Bell Telephone Company of New York.[5] By the end of 1886, the Belgian division had a total 6,900 kilometers of telephone lines, and 3,532 subscribers in seven cities, including Brussels, Antwerp, Charleroi, Ghent, Verviers, and Liège.[6]


The first exchange in Switzerland was opened in Zurich, operated under a license granted by the IBTC to a group of business men on July 24, 1880. During 1881 exchanges were subsequently opened in Geneva, Lausanne, and Winterthur by the government, which shortly after bought out the Zurich exchange. Fourteen exchanges were in operation at the end of 1883, and twice as many a year later.[5]


The Nederlandsche Bell Telefoon Maatschappij (Dutch Bell Telephone Company) was formed in Holland in 1881.[5] By the end of 1886, the Netherlands division had a total of 3,700 kilometers of telephone line, plus 2,623 subscribers in eight cities, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Groningen, Haarlem, and Arnhem.[6]


In Italy, the company quickly established exchanges in Milan, Turin, and Genoa, and exchanges in a dozen of the other largest cities were started in 1881 by other interests under the auspices of a group of Parisian financiers.[5] By the end of 1886, the Italian division had a total of 8,073 subscribers in twelve cities, plus approximately 12,500 kilometers of telephone lines. The largest exchanges were in Rome (2,022 subscribers), Milan (1,089), Genoa (950) and Naples (873).[6]

Sweden and Norway

The International Bell Telephone Company was also responsible for the introduction of the telephone into Norway, and Sweden.[5] In 1881, exchanges were established in Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo; however, due to government intervention, the Bell companies were eventually legislated out or squeezed out of their local markets in favour of national firms.


The Bell Company introduced the telephone to Russia in 1883 in St. Petersburg (or Petrograd) and Moscow.[5] By the end of 1886, IBTC's Russian division had a total of 3,440 subscribers in six cities, with 9,550 kilometers of telephone lines. Its largest exchanges were in St. Petersburg (1,080 subscribers), followed by Moscow (690) and Warsaw (533).[6]


At the very close of 1899, the American Bell Telephone Company was acquired, for business purposes, by its own subsidiary, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T), which then became the head of the monolithic and monopolistic Bell System.

Significant criticism of AT&T (a monopoly) had emerged in the United States that domestic telephone system rates were higher than they needed to be, and that AT&T was using those revenues to subsidize its European operations. Due to that reason and others, and also due to the U.S. Government's regulatory intervention, AT&T president Walter Gifford divested almost all international interests held by the Bell System in 1925, with the exceptions of the Bell Telephone Company of Canada and Northern Electric.

The European division and its subsidiaries were sold to the International Telephone & Telegraph Company of Cuba, at the start of that company's meteoric rise in the international telecommunications industry.[7]

See also


This article incorporates text from John Kingsbury's "The Telephone And Telephone Exchanges: Their Invention And Development", a work in the public domain.
  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i StowgerNet Museum. BTMC And ATEA—Antwerp's Twin Telephone Companies, StowgerNet Telephone Museum website. Retrieved 20 August 2010.
  2. ^ a b c Bob's Old Phones. European Bell and Western Electric Phones, Bob's Old Phones website. Retrieved August 17, 2010.
  3. ^ a b c Kingsbury, John E. The Telephone And Telephone Exchanges: Their Invention And Development, Longmans, Green, and Co., New York/London, 1915.
  4. ^ Huurdeman, Anton A. The Worldwide History Of Telecommunications, Wiley-IEEE, 2003, ISBN 0471205052, ISBN 9780471205050, pg.179
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Stephen B. Adams, Orville R. Butler. Manufacturing The Future: A History Of Western Electric, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pg.49, ISBN 0521651182, ISBN 9780521651189.
  6. ^ a b c d The Electrical Journal. The Telephone Statistics Of Europe, University of Michigan, Volume 19, pg.241.
  7. ^ Martinelli, Arianna. The Dynamics of Technological Discontinuities: A Patent Citation Network Analysis Of Telecommunication Switches (thesis), Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, Eindhoven, Netherlands, 2009, pg.53.

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