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Private enterprise, operating under government-granted concessions, initiated urban telephone service in most European countries (except Germany) in the late 1880s, though virtually all were nationalized in the 1880s and 1890s. The government-operated post and telegraph (and later, telephone) administrations (PTT) then often restricted telephone network development to protect their earlier telegraph investments. As a result, by 1914 the telephone was far more developed in the United States (which had nearly two-thirds of the world's telephones, or nearly ten for every one hundred people) than anywhere in Europe.

Telephone devices patented by Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) were first demonstrated in London and several continental cities in 1877–78. The inception of regular telephone service varied across European capitals, from London and Paris in 1879; followed by Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Christiania, Norway, in 1880; Berlin, Vienna, and several Italian cities in 1881; Helsinki and Lisbon in 1882; Brussels, Moscow, and St. Petersburg in 1883; Luxembourg City in 1885; and finally various Spanish cities in 1886–87. As these dates suggest, early telephone development concentrated in urban areas with many potential users, providing little interconnection among them and little or no service to small communities and rural areas. Virtually all switching of calls required manual operation using male, and later female, operators. Women operators were required to be single (and to resign upon marrying) in Britain, Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden.

Local pricing of telephone service varied. Most subscriber charges were based on per use with some reflection of the distance carried or (more rarely) a flat charge for a given period of use. There was considerable variation in the prices charged by different PTTs. By the mid-1880s, the International Telegraph Bureau in Bern, Switzerland, began to collect and publish statistics on telephone availability and use. By 1887, Germany's PTT had 123 exchanges and more than 22,000 subscribers, while Sweden's privately owned operation (with 148 exchanges and nearly 13,000 subscribers) was second. Other nations fell far behind.

The growing need to interconnect service across national boundaries raised similar questions as had the telegraph decades earlier: the need for some means of setting and interconnecting varied technical standards, as well as melding different currencies and means of paying for telephone service—and determining how to divide revenues across the telephone systems involved. Among the earliest international links were landlines connecting such European cities as Brussels and Paris. Over-water routes took longer: the first was London to Paris in 1891, and Britain to Ireland by means of an undersea cable from Scotland two years later.

The telephone was occasionally applied to deliver concert music and stage entertainment—for example, in Budapest (the Telefon Hirmondo operated by the Puskas brothers in 1893), Paris (the Theatrophone), and in London. The first European automatic telephone exchange (using strowger devices developed in the United States) began operation in Berlin in 1899, but most European nations relied on (often high-capacity) manual switches to the eve of World War I. The first pay telephone kiosks appeared in Britain by 1904, and soon in other nations.

Europe fell far behind U.S. rates of telephone system growth and technical developments from 1890 to 1914, chiefly because of PTT monopoly control of telephone services across Europe. This usually meant that insufficient capital was made available for system expansion (telephones had low priority in national budgets), telephone rates were held to artificially low levels by national parliaments (thus financially starving the systems even more), and telephone administrators generally were subordinate to those directing telegraph and postal services. Further, and with few exceptions, there was virtually no overall system planning or policy and very little study of either rates charged or traffic carried. On the other hand, German and Swiss PTTs stood out for their effective operation of telephone networks, and the three Scandinavian nations retained private ownership and thus a strong commercial impetus to expand telephone availability. This shows up in some statistics: by 1914, a third of British telephones were in London, but the city still had but 3.5 telephones per 100 people, while Stockholm had 24; Copenhagen, 9; Berlin, 6.6; and Paris, 3.2.

As had been the case earlier in the United States, telephone use was limited for the first several decades to government officials, businesses, and the wealthy who could afford the equipment and service charges. Only very slowly—and barely so by 1914—was telephone service made more widely available to and affordable by the general public, at first with phones in public places and pay stations, and later in individual homes.

See alsoScience and Technology; Transportation and Communications.


Baldwin, F. G. C. The History of the Telephone in the United Kingdom. London, 1925.

Bennett, Alfred Rosling. The Telephone Systems of the Continent of Europe. London, 1895. Reprint, New York, 1974.

Chapuis, Robert J. 100 Years of Telephone Switching (1878–1978). Amsterdam, 1982.

Holcomb, A. N. Public Ownership of Telephones on the Continent of Europe. Boston, 1911.

Webb, Herbert Laws. The Development of the Telephone in Europe. London, 1911. Reprint, New York, 1974.

Christopher H. Sterling