Standard Telephones and Cables

Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd (later STC plc) was a British telephone, telegraph, radio, telecommunications and related equipment R&D manufacturer. It began life in London as International Western Electric in 1883. The company was owned from 1925 to mid 1980s by ITT of the USA, with the Australian branch of STC being acquired by Alcatel Australia in 1987. The company’s operations were ultimately bought by Northern Telecom (Europe) (Nortel) in 1991.

During its history STC invented and developed several groundbreaking new technologies including PCM and optical fibres.


Early days

The company began life in 1883 as an agent for the US Western Electric company that also had a factory in Antwerp, Belgium. The London operation sold US-designed telephones and exchanges to fledgling British telephone companies. However, because of the costs of importing product, a failing cable factory at North Woolwich in London’s East End was acquired in 1898. Despite setbacks, as well as making lead-sheathed cables this factory also assembled equipment from components imported from Belgium and the States. It then moved into their complete manufacture too. Using advanced American thinking and designs and after incorporation as a British legal entity in 1910, Western Electric Ltd’s future looked bright.

World War I brought this progress to a sudden halt. The company contributed to the war effort in military communications and the then primitive cable and wireless technologies they used. Radio technology was being initiated in the neutral USA. This gave Western Electric a post-war advantage as wireless broadcasting was introduced in Britain. The company was closely involved in wireless broadcasting (radio). With its competitors, it set up the British Broadcasting Company (later Corporation) as well as producing wireless receivers. Valve technology was developed and commercially exploited.

Inter-War Growth

In 1925, Western Electric’s international operations were bought. The surprise buyer was the infant ITT Corporation, founded by Sosthenes Behn less than 10 years previously with an aggressive and thrusting reputation. To fit with its other worldwide operations, ITT renamed its new UK operation Standard (meaning datum against which others would be measured) Telephones and Cables. The new organisation was based on entrepreneurial risk taking, based on solid research and brave innovation. Alec Reeves and Alan Blumlein could both be defined as perfect employees.

Within a few years, multi-channel transmission (1932), microwave transmission (1934), coaxial cabling (1936), the entire radio systems for the liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth (1936-39), the patenting of pulse code modulation (1938) all contributed to the hey-day of telephony’s development.

Between 1939 and 1945 significant military work was undertaken with many developments particularly with regard to aerial warfare: communications, radar, navigational aids, and especially OBOE

The emergence of telecommunications

The 1950s were characterised by the establishment of television broadcasting. Technical milestones were numerous and were crowned by the coverage of Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation in 1953. The steady spread of TV transmission and availability over Britain very often used STC technology and equipment.

In other areas, ship to ship, ship to shore and civil aviation communications took on modern characteristics with STC's products. In time, international and intercontinental submarine telephone contact became possible, feasible and then everyday. Questions of product and installation quality and absolute reliability were overcome and STC became a major player with its production unit in Southampton opened in 1956. Coverage graduated from rivers, estuaries, the English Channel, the North Sea, the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. STC became the world leader in this field after acquiring Submarine Cables Ltd in 1970.

Digital technology began to supplant analogue with Bell's invention of transistors. STC's first PCM link in 1964 had waited nearly 30 years for material technology to make it work.

The Digital Age

In 1966, Charles Kao of STC's Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in Harlow demonstrated that light rather than electricity could be used to transmit speech and (even more importantly) data accurately at very high speeds. Again material technology took time to catch up but by 1977 a commercial fibre optic link had been installed in England. Within ten years BT abandoned metal cables except at the subscriber’s premises. Before STC’s demise, its plant at Newport came to dominate the recabling of the UK public telephone system.

Equally in terms of switching apparatus STC was a major player. Until 1980 TXE4 analogue electronic switch was an early replacement for electro-mechanical systems. Before a politically engineered withdrawal in 1982, STC and its (now equally defunct) partners, Plessey and GEC, developed the fully digital System X switch which is still in service in many UK facilities in 2005.

Decline and Fall

With developments in computer technology influencing and stimulating telecoms, the buzzword of the late 1980s became “convergence”. This meant that specialised suppliers, adapted to the specific needs of the local market would dominate. ITT needed to raise cash to fund continued development of its telephone switching system (System 12) and sold off all but a minority shareholding of STC between 1979 and 1982.

The remainder of the 1980s saw STC lose its way. An attempt to enter the mainframe computer market with a failing player, ICL, led to financial strains. By 1991, with an aging workforce, production spread over too many expensive sites and no clear leadership succession to its former chairman, Sir Kenneth Corfield, STC was bought by Northern Telecom (Nortel). STC had lasted 109 years but, by then, represented just another archetypal business failure.


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