For many years the Antwerp district has been the telephone manufacturing capital of Belgium, with not one but two companies making telephone equipment—BTMC and ATEA. Both plants were the result of foreign investment and both had entirely separate origins.


BTMC—the Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company

Part 1, Chronology

The establishment of Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company on 26th April 1882, was an ambitious undertaking aimed at "the production, sale, purchase and leasing of equipment for telephony and telegraphy and everything directly or indirectly related to electricity".

The founders included Francis Welles, delegate of the American Western Electric Company (after whom the square in front of the Bell Tower was named), Louis De Graaf, authorised agent of the International Bell Telephone Company, and a number of local dignitaries.

After 1883—Bell then had some 35 employees—the workshops were accommodated in a small factory in Boudewijnstraat. The Bell products were sold in numerous far-off export markets right from the early years. Around the turn of the century, the workforce had increased to 700 and the original building and already been greatly expanded.

Before the First World War, ambitious activities were developed: the launching of the automatic telephone exchanges. The 1920s were golden years for the then Bell Telephone Company. All this was due to the company's unique Rotary telephone system which was a winner right from the start.

As one of the European associate companies of Western Electric, BTMC was transferred in 1925 from Bell (i.e. AT&T) ownership to the new International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT) established in 1920 [this association ended on 1st January 1987 upon take-over by the then Compagnie Générale d'Electricité (CGE), now Alcatel Alsthom].

The rapid penetration of automatic telephony in numerous countries resulted in remarkable expansion for Bell. The workforce grew steadily, reaching a pre-war high in 1927 with over 11,000 employees. Also in those golden years, the Bell Telephone Stadium, a sports and recreation park for employees, was opened in Hoboken.

However, the economic crisis left its mark in the 1930s. When the international recession reached its low point, Bell still only had 2,700 employees. Bell attempted to turn the tide by concentrating on the sector of durable consumables, including radio, a new medium which was then the rage. In the same decade Bell also began to produce refrigerating equipment, air-conditioning systems and even light bulbs.

When the Second World War broke out, a new period of growth seemed to be imminent, but for that Bell would have to wait until 1945. In 1947/48, orders far outstripped production capacity and various production workshops had to be rented temporarily. For this reason, a factory was built in Hoboken in 1948. In 1954, a start was made with the construction of the Bell Tower and in 1958 land was bought for the construction of a new factory. Soon afterwards, Bell successfully offered the Pentaconta telephone system on the world markets, and the postal automation department also increased its range of activities.

In 1965, Bell also entered the realm of space travel and two years later the first electronic telephone exchange of the Metaconta type was put into operation. Metaconta 10C and also the modernised version 10CN, were worthy successors to Rotary and Pentaconta. Throughout the world, over 3 million lines were installed and in some countries lines were also produced locally under licensing agreements.

As a decade, the 1970s were to be mainly characterised by an unprecedented leap forwards. In the field of R&D, Bell concentrated its efforts on micro-electronics, the development of software, system studies, computer applications and the introduction of new techniques such as pulse code modulation (PCM).

In the field of switching technology, digitalisation found an application in the new "System 12" digital switching system, the first exchange in Belgium being installed in Brecht in 1981. The present Alcatel 1000 S12 system which is being produced and exported on a large scale, and of which today over 50 million lines have been ordered by 39 countries, is the modern version of this first generation of completely digital telephone exchanges.

The nineties see the emergence of a new generation of telecommunication services, such as home shopping, home banking for residential users and high-speed data exchanging and videoconferencing for companies. Advanced multimedia services combining video, graphic elements, images, data and sound, place a wealth of information, relaxation and numerous communication facilities at the disposal of users.

For interactive communication at a distance, powerful networks are required. Alcatel possesses the necessary technology and technological know-how to transform any network into an "information highway", be it copper, coax or optical fibre. Alcatel's state-of-the-art technology involves ATM (broadband switching), ADSL (broadband access), SDH (broadband transmission) and Skybridge (satellite communication system).

Part 2, Background

The company's original name, Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company, was a natural choice for the Bell company's European telephone interests, at a time when Bell was obtaining operating franchises in several European countries. After the Belgian firm left the American fold in 1925, the name ‘Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company’ was retained, no doubt for tradition's sake, although some accounts claim this anomaly originated because of an oversight of company lawyers. In any case the Bell name remained the legal name of the company along with an entitlement to use the Bell logotype. The trading title Alcatel Bell is still used by the company, which sets out its heritage clearly in the company history on its website.

It is argued with justification that BTMC Antwerp has been a tremendously significant force in the history of telecommunications in Europe. Everything started in 1879 when Alexandra Graham Bell’s father-in-law, Gardiner Hubbard, founded International Bell with the aim of introducing Bell telephone equipment to Europe. He did a tour of Europe and found that the then Belgian Government offered him the best deal to set up his European headquarters in Antwerp.

In those times, governments had not got around to administering telephone systems. Even in Europe, the telephone companies were operated as private ventures. The drawback was that, as demand grew, Bell had insufficient funds to expand their telephone networks at the required rate. When extra capital was needed, Western Electric purchased all the shares held by Bell Telephone.

By 1885, local manufacture in Antwerp had replaced the importation of manual exchanges and telephone instruments. Manufacturing volume more than doubled annually as Bell began to supply most of Europe. Before the turn of the century, Bell was the principal supplier of telephone systems in Egypt, China , Japan and South America.

In 1895, the European governments decided that it was inappropriate to leave national telephone networks in the hands of private companies. The operating side of Bell Antwerp was purchased by the Belgian Government for a fair price and the company continued to flourish through its expanding manufacturing and installation businesses.

It was in 1925 that Bell Antwerp’s parent company, Western Electric, was in urgent need of capital in order not to miss out on telephone expansion in the United States. To raise the required capital, Western Electric sold off Bell Antwerp and several other European telephone companies to International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT).

Bell Antwerp can justifiably claim to have brought the telephone to Europe and to be the first with manual, rotary and electronic exchanges for urban use. In 1884 they established the very first inter-city trunk line -Antwerp/Brussels and in 1887 the first international telephone link in Europe - Brussels/Paris. By 1922, installation of Rotary automatic exchanges made in Antwerp was well under way.

Condensed and adapted from and other material.


ATEA has been owned by Belgian, British, American and German companies in succession and has manufactured telephone equipment in Belgium since 1890. Despite changes of name over this period, it managed remarkably to retain the same initials over more than a century.

It was established in 1890 as the Ateliers de Téléphonie et d'Electricité d'Anvers and in 1922 became the Antwerp Telephone And Electric Works, owned by Automatic Telephone Equipment Company (ATE) of Liverpool, England. Some people derive the 'new' ATEA acronym from Automatic Telephone & Electric, with the letter ‘A’ after ATE signifying Antwerp, but at this time the ATM company had not yet become ATE.

The next change of name (Automatique Electrique de Belgique) took place in was in either 1926 or 1931 (accounts vary), when the company was taken over by Automatic Electric of Chicago but continued to use the established trademark ATEA. At some stage (it is said) the name Automatic Electric was also used.

In 1962 General Telephone and Electronics Corporation (GTE) acquired the Automatic Electric company and in the process became majority owner of the Belgian company, which was known as GTE-ATEA until acquisition by Siemens of Germany in September 1986. At this time GTE sold off 80 per cent of all its European equity to Siemens. Control of ATEA thus came under Siemens and the GTE name was dropped, although ATEA at Herentals continued to sell and service GTE products.

Throughout this period of GTE majority ownership GTE-ATEA traditionally had 30 per cent of public exchange business in Belgium. The firm also built up a profitable business in PABX and general office systems based on GTE’s Omni range of products.

The company’s history also gave rise to an interesting technical problem for the choice of future digital exchanges to be supplied by Siemens/ATEA to the Belgian RTT (Belgian state telecomms administration, today Belgacom). The RTT has many GTE type GTD-5C digital exchanges in service. These exchanges were built in Belgium and installed by ATEA. Siemens, obviously expected to be able to introduce its German-designed EWS products into Belgium via ATEA, although EWS needed additional software development to make it work with the existing GTD and [Alcatel] System 12 exchange systems. Apparently, in order to introduce EWS into another European country, Siemens was prepared to pay for the required software development.

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