A House with Connections - Communication in the Interwar Period II

By Birgitte Wistoft

01. Sep. 2008

In the middle of Købmagergade in Copenhagen stands a house which was the heart of telecommunication in Denmark for decades and the building stones of which were laid during the years after World War I. Since Post & Tele Museum moved into the historical premises, it has been possible for everybody to visit the offices that used to be reserved for employees within telegraphy, telephony, and broadcasting. 

Behind this facade official Denmark speeded up communication by means of the latest technology during the interwar period. The house contained the State Telegraph of Denmark. 

„The Little Intelligent Telegraph Service"

This is what Edvard Brandes used to call the overworked and underpaid Danish telegraph operators, and that was even before World War I really set the telegram traffic going. From a few offices in the old post yard in Købmagergade the telegraph operators handled national and international correspondence around the clock. 363 men and women were working in 30 hours' shifts three times a week during the first years of the war. No wonder that absence due to illness was considerable: 11 days per man and 26 per woman in 1914.

Nine Years of Building Muddle

The telegraph staff knew very well what caused the many days lost through sickness: The offices in the post yard were too narrow, insanitary, and dark, and the air was polluted by the gas and kerosene lamps. For 30 years they had been fighting for new premises. In 1915, the problem was finally brought into focus and the architect Andreas Clemmensen (1852-1928) was assigned the task of creating new offices for the State Telegraph. He is the originator of the mouse-coloured "baroque" building next to the post yard, with side, middle, and connecting wings which connected the post offices with the new telegraph offices. 

Over the entrance to 37, Købmagergade is written in sandstone: DST. (Danmark's State Telegraph). 

The rebuilding started in 1917, was inaugurated on 11th April 1923 - and was finished in 1925. It took nine years to build it over the heads of the working telegraph operators and postmen. Comments on the way were many and sarcastic: The auditors of public accounts concluded that it would undoubtedly have been quicker, cheaper, and better to build a new house.

Behind Locked Doors

Two old gable houses (35 and 37, Købmagergade) were demolished to make room for the new baroque house. One of them (no. 37) had housed the public access to handing in telegrams. In Clemmensen's house the handing-in was placed in an inner, roofed court corresponding to the post yard's new office where customers were served: The gate in the red town house of the postal service had been changed into a flight of stairs leading to a roofed inner court where overhead light and columns on the masonry welcomed the customers.

On the inauguration day in 1923, senior telegraph operator Abrahamsen emphasized to the invited press that as representatives of the public they would for the first time in the history of the service be offered a guided tour BEHIND the handing-in - behind the doors which had always been locked because of the secrecy of the telegrams, "the closed land" to the public. We join them. 

The Wheatstone Hall one busy Sunday in 1936. 

Automatic Telegraphy

The new head office of State Telegraph Service contained three departments: The Telegraph, The Telephone, and the Accounts Department. The Telegraph was the "big brother" and occupied the two lower floors of the new-built cross building stretching from Valkendorfsgade to Løvstræde behind and parallel with the post yard and the baroque house. The house is made of reinforced concrete which is evident from the acoustics even today. The staff at that time was not too happy with it either because the noise from the automatic telegraph apparatuses was ear-splitting, but the journalists were impressed.

Electric telegraphy had encircled the globe long since, and the finger on the Morse key had got help. Already from the beginning of the century, „Wheatstone's automatic telegraph system" had gradually replaced the slower manual work at the Morse keys. Now a strip of paper was punched and could both be sent and reproduced at the recipient's automatically. And another machine could write out the perforation as clear text.

Telex in its Infancy

Since 1908, large companies had been able to get direct telegraph connection with Købmagergade and by means of the „type printing apparatus" they could exchange legible telegrams with the Central Telegraph Station. A protracted - and definitely not silent - technology which in 1932 had to give way to the " teleprinter" whose simple functionality became a true revolution: Quick touch typing became the main qualification of the telegraph staff and teleprinter subscribers could communicate directly with each other via the first telex network.

State Telephone Service or Trunk Exchange

On the upper floors of the house the State Telephone Service got new facilities. The name was not changed to the Trunk Exchange before World War II, but the function was the same: Establishing telephone calls between the areas of the regional telephone companies and with foreign countries. Especially the "Interurban Exchange Hall"on the 4th floor was impressive. From an elevated podium in the middle of the long hall the many women taking care of the regional and international calls were supervised. The beautiful hall is today used for special exhibitions. 

Kammersanger Emil Holm performing Mussorgskijs "The Bumblebee" in 1924. On the piano: Viktor Fischer. The studio was called "the reversed cream bun" and was situated on the ground floor on the corner of Købmagergade and Løvstræde. Today, it has been changed into an office.
Photographer: Tage Christensen, Politiken 

The Birth of Danish Broadcasting

The new house, in ordinary parlance the Central Telegraph Station, had room for experiments. Broadcasting was submitted to strict national limitations, but when England started to use the radio for entertainment in 1920, broadcasting soon became the hottest thing a telecommunication service could offer the public. Therefore Danish broadcasting was provided with studios, amplifier room, and administration in the new house of the State Telegraphy. With the radio ordinance of 1925 the service was subordinated to the State Telegraph and a Radio Council with responsibility of the programmes, and the radio set became the technical invention which gained ground in Denmark most quickly - in keen competition with the mobile telephone.

Within a few years the Radio moved to other, larger premises, but in 37, Købmagergade we can still see the first broadcasting relicts and the rooms from where court singer Emil Holm and others were entertaining the Danish radio listeners. As one of the magazines of the time put it, the era of the profiteers had been replaced with the era of the radio - and it happened, of course, from the ventricle of communication in Købmagergade. 

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