Martin Löfgren – an unrecognized pioneer

Martin Löfgren was an Ericsson engineer who made important contributions to the company's first automatic telephone exchange system. His efforts, however, were largely unrecognized. In historical accounts, Löfgren was overshadowed by more prominent figures. Although he shares this fate with man other engineers, this in no way means that his story does not deserve to be told.

Löfgren was born in 1880 and joined Ericsson in October 1912 after working for ten years outside Sweden for various companies involved with telephony and electro-mechanical engineering. At Ericsson, Löfgren was soon involved in efforts to develop an automatic telephone exchange system. His interest was drawn to the ideas for such a system developed by Axel Hultman, who was telephony director for Stockholm at Televerket, the Swedish PTT. In spring 1913, Hultman acting as a private person had signed a cooperative agreement with Ericsson according to which the company would help him to develop his ideas, as well as seeking patents in his name, in exchange for the right to use the resulting technology.

Over the following years, Löfgren contributed several designs to the development work. Löfgren himself claimed that he had made significant contributions to technical designs that were later patented in Hultgren's name and that he only became aware of this after it was reported in the press. Several colleagues at Ericsson also supported Löfgren. David Lienzén, for example, who worked with Knut Kåell on the development of the 500-switch, stated subsequently that he would "put his head on the line" that Löfgren was the inventor and designer of the multiple plate that was so central to the system and for which Hultman had received a patent.

Ericsson's management, however, was not particularly interested in Löfgren's claims. One interpretation, of course, was that they considered the claims unfounded or impossible to prove. Nonetheless, it is also possible that their disinterest reflected a desire to promote Hultman as the inventor. Not only did Hultman in fact hold the patent. Through his position as Televerket, he also represented a potentially important customer for Ericsson's automatic system.

After 1920, Löfgren spent increasingly less time at work, due to a heart condition. A few years later, he suffered a mild stroke, which paralyzed his right arm. Löfgren subsequently received a disability pension from Ericsson.

During his illness, he continued to unsuccessfully pursue his claims, which he documented by dictating an account to his wife of what he and what Hultman had contributed to the development of the automatic system. Löfgren died in November 1926, just 45 years old. Hultman, on the other hand, made a fortune from the royalty payments that he received on Ericsson's sales of 500-switching station to Televerket and to foreign customers.

Löfgren's story is one of an engineer whose contributions did not receive the recognition that he and his colleagues believe they deserved. We will never know how well founded his claims were or why Ericsson's management chose not to pay any attention to them.

One thing is clear, however. Axel Hultman did not forget his former colleague at Ericsson. A few months after Martin Löfgren's death, he visited his widow Ida to make sure that she and her daughter had the financial means to remain in their house. Before he left, he gave her a check for SEK 5,0000, which corresponded to about a half year's salary for an engineer.

Author: Claes-Fredrik Helgesson

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