1892-1999: an overview of Atea

Background: the start of telephony in the 19th century.

Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent for telephony in 1876 (although the real inventor may have been an Italian immigrant Meucci).

Western Electric was a company which commercialized Gra­ham Bell’s invention. They wanted to expand business in Europe. Ultimately they chose Belgium since the Belgian government offered them the best conditions. The contract with the Belgian Government also required that the equipment be built in Belgium.

The establishment of Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company took place in 1882, and the offices and factory were located in Antwerp, Belgium.

Their objectives were "the production, sale, purchase and leasing of equipment for telephony and telegraphy and everything directly or indirectly related to electricity". (See  here and also here).

The founders included :

  • Francis Welles, delegate of the American Western Electric Company,
  • Louis De Groof, representative of the International Bell Telephone Company, and
  • A number of local dignitaries.

In 1890, Western Electric decided to buy out International Bell Telephone, so their representatives in the board of directors had to leave, among them Louis De Groof, and his brother Jean-Corneille.

A new company was founded

The brothers De Groof convinced a local director of the Bell Operating Com­pany (called “la Compagnie Belge du Téléphone Bell”) to join them in starting a new telephony business.


In April 1892, a new company named “Antwerp Telephone and Electrical Works" was created by these 3 people along with 5 local agents providing some of the venture capital. They started their business in Berchem, a suburb of Antwerp.

The mission of the company was manufacturing, purchase, sales and rent of equipment concerning telephony, telegraphy and electricity.

They delivered, among other items, manual exchanges and telephones all over Europe. Besides Belgium and the Netherlands, customers were found in a lot of places, even before World War I. A few examples:






Saint-Petersburg, Mos­cow, Kiev, Riga, Odes­sa

It’ s still the time before the Russian Revolution of 1917!


Rome, Milan, Turin, Bolog­na, Como, Piacen-za, Venice, Naples, Palermo-Sicily


United Kingdom

Canterbury, Moor­gate, Glasgow



Warsaw , Lodz






Vera Cruz



If we look at the catalogues of the phones, we see a lot of resemblance with phones of other suppliers. Bob Estreich (the owner of http://www.bobsoldphones.net ) told me the following about this:

"Many phone companies of this period used parts from Siemens and Ericsson until they could build their own. The companies doing this included BTMC in Belgium, Sterling and Peel Conner in Britain, Elektrisk Bureau in Norway, Mollers in Denmark, and many of the smaller French companies. Many of these companies were using just about all brought-in parts except woodwork, then gradually started introducing their own metalwork, as the company grew."

Example : see here on Bob's website.


Despite numerous company name changes, the products always retained the Atea brand name. Table 1 gives you an overview to avoid confusion.



Company Name

Brand Name


The Antwerp Telephone and Electrical Works



The New Antwerp Telephone and Electrical Works



Automatique Electrique de Belgique



Automatique Electrique



Automatic Electric






GTE Atea






Siemens Atea


Table 1: Relation Company Name – Brand Name Atea.


Atea stands for “Ateliers de Téléphone et Electricité Anversoise”, a French acronym for “Antwerp Telephone and Electrical Works”, the first company name.

A new start after World War I

Business went slow during World War I, and the company virtually went broke. In 1919, a new and reborn company was founded “the New Antwerp Telephone and Electrical Works”. The business was restarted, with the following shareholders:

  • The “Banque d’Outremer” representing a group (I have not been able to figure who or what this group represented) bringing in new venture capital,
  • The former “Antwerp Telephone and Electrical Works”, (represented by a lawyer) bringing in the real estate, tools, machinery and know-how of the former company.
  • The members of the board were also minority stockholders.

Widening the product range with measuring equipment

The product range was widened by starting up a division on measuring equipment (watt meters, voltmeters, etc) . They delivered measuring equipment as OEM products for Power plants, mines, ships….  Atea was famous for cus­tomization of the meters. Kilowatt-hour meters were also a very popular pro­duct, with many of them  purchased by the local power company[1]. This product line was successful until the 1960s and early 1970s.


After World War I, telephony automation became popular. The company got in touch with the Relay Automatic Telephony Company (RAT) of London, and obtained a license for their automatic switch for the Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg) and Spain.

In 1926, they signed a contract with Greece, to automate their National tele­phone network, and they would have to take a franchise on that network[2].

The RAT technology, developed by Betulander[3]  was technically good but expensive, especially for bigger installations.

The “new Antwerp Telephone and Electrical Works” had to look for cost effec­tive solutions. So they got in touch with Automatic Electric in Chicago  to ob­tain a license in Strowger technology.

Associated Telephone and Telegraph, who owned Automatic Electric, took a “major interest” in the company. Through this relationship Atea got access to the Strowger techno­logy in 1926 and was supported by Automatic Telephone Manufacturing Company (ATM) of Liverpool. ATM already had expertise in Strowger tech­nology before World War I; they delivered their first switch to British Post Of­fice in 1912.

The local Belgian Operating Company was also interested in Strowger equip­ment, and deliveries of adapted switches started at the end of the 1920s.

The association with ATM had some side benefit; Atea started to build and de­liver traffic light controllers, with some versions even containing Strowger tech­nology. This product was very popular, especially in Belgium, where Atea was market leader until the 1980s. Another product well known during these years were front door intercom systems.

The alliance with Automatic Electric was an important step in the company’s evolution, initiating a long period of stability. There were economic ups and downs, caused by external factors (such as the 1930’s crisis, world war II, etc), but Atea continued to grow since it was  owned by Automatic Electric of Chicago.

Phone assembling was a very labor intensive task in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Around 1930 this started to be industrialized. After first using wood and ebonite, metal and  bakelite were later introduced in the 1930s. The styling was also influenced by the time when the phone was built; we see an important evolu­tion in phone styling over the years.

Private switching and Telephone Key Systems

An important product line was the PAX and PABX business, not only for the lo­cal market, but also for export. Important customers were also found over­seas i.e. in former Belgian Congo. Some equipment such as phones and meters were adap­ted for sur­vival in a tropical environment.

The Railway Company and the Army were big customers, and Atea started to build up expertise in private networking.

Atea had a big business in “Key Telephone Systems”[4], especially after World War II. System 600 was very popular in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by the success of the System 800, which was very advanced for the time it was de­veloped. Both phones and systems show up regularly on websites of online te­lephone museums and second hand shops such as EBay.

Here an example of the

-        system 600 phone.

-        system 800 phone

The 800 system was especially widespread in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia. After the end of its lifecycle (with more than 2 million phones installed) a production facility has been setup in Brazil.

Technological Evolution since 1960

The transistor was invented in 1948, but it was not until 1960 that electronic industrial applications showed up.

An early semi-electronic switch, the EAX-A1 was installed in 1967 in Hasselt, Belgium. The intelligence was done with wired logic on discrete components and a reed relay switching network. The basic technology was transferred from Automatic Electric, but the full design was done in Belgium.

The private network business also developed a similar system called PREX.

On request of the Telephone Operating Company RTT, the design of a stored program controlled switch was started, the A2PT system. The first switch of this generation was delivered to the customer in 1974.

The evolution of the technology increased rapidly, and Atea's parent company Automatic Electric joined with GTE (General Telephone & Electronics) in 1955. Atea became one of the many companies in the group in 1962, and was renamed to GTE Atea in 1971. The com­pany could benefit from being a part of GTE.

The central office system N2EAX, a Stored Program Control system with a huge central processor, was designed by Automatic Electric for the domestic market in the 1970s. It was an electronic switch, but with a reed relay controlled switching network. Atea was, in cooperation with a sister company in Milan, Italy, responsible for the international version.


In private switching, the technology of the Automatic Electric’s digital PABX GTD-120 and GTD-1000 was transferred to Atea and adapted to international requirements. Atea had the first digital PABX in Europe in 1978. The market (very much expanded through GTE International) was very fragmented, with many different cus­tomer requirements. A software controlled system using a set of 8080 micro­processors offered a good flexibility.

Systems were sold mainly in Belgium, Denmark, Italy, the United Kingdom, South Africa, but also in exotic countries such as Malaysia.

In some countries, such as the UK, joint ventures have been setup to facilitate business . Other countries such as China, India and the former unified Yugoslavia required local production through joint venture companies.


Soon the GTD had a successor, the OMNI-S (same architecture, newer tech­nology) and later on the cost reduced OMNI 200 family. The main advantage of the European version of these PABX’s was their flexible signalization, either on public or on private networks. A universal (table driven) Trunk program al­lowed easy adaptation to any network signaling system. Setting up a new sig­nalization scheme was done in a couple of hours.

See http://www.britishtelephones.com/ntx30.htm for background information on the OMNI family of products. GTD-1000 E can be seen here.


At the end of the 1970s a new style of telephone was very well received on the market.

Electronic Key systems such as 8000 and 8800 (sold as “rhapsody” in the UK) followed the same styling.

The DATEA 2000, a telephone with credit card verification capabilities (and EFT, Electronic Fund Transfer),  was a first step towards data communication and the internet.

In public switching, the N2EAX was soon followed by the GTD5 system, a fully digital central office, and again Atea was involved in the internationalization.

There was a technological evolution from electro-mechanical to electronic switching in the 1960s and 1970s. This was followed soon by a second wave with the shift from hardware to software control. R&D investments, especially in software, increased dramatically, and GTE decided to move out of R&D and production of telephone equipment.

In 1986 Atea was sold to Siemens. A dual product policy was worked out for PABXs. The Siemens ISDN PABX was sold where possible, but in some particular cases and special networks, the OMNI with its flexible sig­nalization was still offered, until the phase out at the end of its lifecycle sometime in the 1990s.

The public exchange GTD5 was replaced by the EWSD, and adapted to Bel­gian requirements by Atea. Atea engineers joined Siemens people in de­signing mobile communication networks required for the mobile network boom of the 1990s. Siemens also assigned Atea responsibility for markets in Africa and the Middle East. Atea became active in mobile communication in 17 African countries.

OTN, a remarkable optical transmission system, with a wide variety of inter­faces, was conceived by Atea, and is used any place where “distance” is in­volved. Typical customers are mines, subways, military applications, pipe­lines, etc. This product family, which is sold worldwide,  was fully designed, manufactured and supported by an Atea team.

On October 1st, 1999, after 107 years of existence, Atea became fully integrated in the Siemens organization.


Jan Verhelst


Many thanks to: Rik Castelijns, who wrote a previous version of this text in Dutch in 1982 (Atea's 90 years celebration).

And thanks to a lot of people who did some proofreading:


Bob Estreich


Carlos Bekaert, Erik De Cooman, Hubert Vanooteghem, Karel Verhelst


Dick Beilke, Joan Hoigard, Tony Metke


[1] This was by the way Atea’s “neighbor”. Another important neighbor was a brewery, but that’s off-topic!

[2] I don’t know if they finally delivered the equipment, I could not find any trace

[3]  See http://www.acmi.net.au/AIC/TELSTRA_SWITCH.html , search for Betulander.

[4] Key systems are intercom systems where you destination can be reached by pressing one single key. But in these systems, there is also a connection with the public exchange, at least the ones after World War II. See also http://www.britishtelephones.com/rhapsod1.htm