Gerdhem ventures out in the world

In Stockholm, as in other cities, telephone cables were originally drawn across roofs. This was not an ideal solution. The cables were fastened in bundles to stands that easily blew down, which both interrupted telephone traffic and damaged the roof. In addition, it was both expensive and cumbersome to draw cables in this manner.

After a study trip to the US in 1885, H T Cedergren, who was president of Stockholms Allmänna Telefonaktiebolag (SAT), therefore began to experiment with underground cables. Karl Wilhelm Gerdhem, an engineer who joined SAT in 1892, was eventually enlisted in this development work. Gerdhem, who was 24 at the time, was particularly interested in network construction, and the fact that the first conduits for telephone cables could be laid beneath the streets of Stockholm in 1895 was in large part his doing.

When SAT's subsidiary Svensk-Dansk-Ryska Telefon AB won the concession to provide telephone service in Moscow, extensive network work was required in the city. Karl Wilhelm Gerdhem was appointed as the company's chief network engineer. He corresponded frequently with his colleague Gottlieb Piltz at SAT's Stockholm office regarding technical issues in conjunction with the build out of the network. He only occasionally talked about local conditions in his new home, but in the beginning of November he wrote: "When Lundqvist or someone else comes here, please send my winter hat. It will undoubtedly be cold here this winter. This morning it was -5° C."

When the initial work in Moscow had been completed in 1905, Gerdhem's expertise was put to better use in a place where he definitely did not need his winter hat. He was now put in charge of the Swedish consortium that had received the concession for telephone service in Mexico. Gerdhem led the installation work up until the completion of the first telephone station in Mexico City in 1907. At last he was able to return to Sweden.

The following year, however, Gerdhem was appointed as manager for SAT's network divisions. His visits to Sweden were therefore not prolonged. Repeated efforts to win new concessions brought him to Argentina, China and other countries.

Gerdhem traveled to Argentina together with Ericsson's engineer Rudolf Kruse. On the basis of experienced gained on that trip, SAT and Ericsson applied jointly for a concession to operate telephone services in Buenos Aires. The Argentinean authorities, however, placed excessive demands on the Swedish companies, which resulted in them pulling out of the deal.

SAT and Ericsson also worked together to try to win a concession in China. With the Danish company Store Nordiske Telegrafselskab as a third party, they formed a syndicate in 1914 with the objective of operating and supplying materials to the telephone network in the major city of Guangzhou (Canton) and the neighboring regions on the south coast.

Although Ericsson had some sales in the country, signing a major contract with China would break new ground for the Swedish companies in this very attractive market. Karl Wilhelm Gerdhem was sent to Beijing in 1915 to negotiate with the Chinese authorities for the concession. His many years in foreign countries had not only made him an increasingly skilled engineer, but also an accomplished negotiator.

Others wanted to get into the game, however. "As you can understand, my hopes for winning the contract are not great. The Japanese and the Americans, from what I understand, have strong diplomatic support", wrote Gerdhem in a letter to Sweden. The Swedish-Danish consortium's bid was also higher than its foreign competitors.

Gerhem therefore appealed to the Chinese by reducing the interest on the loan that the Chinese authorities would receive from Stockholms Enskilda Bank to pay the syndicate for many years of operation and maintenance. He dared to make his own decisions when there was no time to consult the board and hoped on these occasions that he would not "make too many stupid mistakes and meet with approval from the Board".

In the end, no party won the contract for Guangzhou, and World War I soon put an end to trade with China.

Following the merger of SAT and Ericsson in 1918, Gerhem was appointed head of the newly merged network division, the division was transformed in 1930 into L M Ericssons Försäljnings AB with Karl Wilhelm Gerdhem as president. After participating in starting the company, Gerhem retired the following year. He passed away one year later.

Author: Mats Wickman

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