Huddly's Heritage: Vebjørn Tandberg, beloved Norwegian genius
The influence of the Tandberg company, and more importantly that of the man who built it, on Huddly’s own story cannot be overstated. Both of our co-founders, our CEO and another dozen of our team members are ex-Tandberg employees. Without exception, they still talk with great affection about their time there and, as we begin to explore the Huddly heritage in this, the first in a series of posts, there is no better place to start than with the story of Tandberg’s revered founder, Vebjørn Tandberg.
Tandberg, Huddly and “Video Valley”
Norway’s “Video Valley” is built on the legacy of the Tandberg company. After its acquisition by the corporate behemoth Cisco Systems for $3.4bn back in 2010, many of the Tandberg team’s most influential members have gone on to start their own technology companies here in Norway, all based around cameras and video. Huddly is one such company, but there are many others, including:
- SynergySky, an integrated video collaboration solution in the cloud, founded 2008
- Videonor, a cloud-based video conferencing platform, founded 2010
- Videxio, a video conferencing platform founded in 2011;
- Seevia, a directory service that simplifies the use of video conferencing, founded 2011
- Acano, a collaboration software company founded in 2012 (and acquired by Cisco in 2015)
- Pexip, a video conferencing platform, founded 2012
- Huddly, perhaps the greatest collaboration camera makers in the world 😉 founded 2013
- Tikk Talk, an open marketplace for interpretation services, founded 2016
- Confrere, who make tailor-made software solutions for meetings between professionals and their clients, founded 2017 in Oslo’s StartupLab – the same incubator where we at Huddly started our own journey.
This explosion of video technology companies in Norway is a testament to the influence of the Tandberg company and, more specifically, the legacy of one man: Vebjørn Otto Tandberg.
An electro-engineering prodigy
Vebjørn Tandberg was considered by many to be a genius. Born in Bodø, Norway in 1904, his life was one of industrial adventure, devotion to his employees, pioneering innovation and, ultimately, tragedy.
At its height, the Tandberg Radio Factory employed more than 3,100 people and had an unrivalled reputation for quality and innovation for more than half a century.
At the tender age of 15, Vebjørn was already building electronics and having an impact beyond Norway’s shores.
He and a friend managed to build a radio transmitter so technically advanced when they sent out an SOS signal, it was mistaken for genuine Mayday signal and caused havoc on the high seas. I’m sure they both had a lot to explain to their parents.
But the precocious, irrepressible Vebjørn would not be deterred. 14 years later he would go on to create a business that would change the lives of those who worked for him and make no small impact on the course of history.
At its height, the Tandberg Radio Factory employed more than 3,100 people and had an unrivalled reputation for quality and innovation for more than half a century. Ex-employees still hold him in great affection today.
The founding of Tandberg Electronics
At a mere 29 years of age, Vebjørn would start the company that carried his name and would define his life.
Tandbergs Radiofabrikk (the Tandberg Radio Factory) was opened in Oslo on the 25th of January 1933 and soon began to produce some of the most innovative electronics products anywhere in the world at the time.
The company’s first radio was named “Tommeliten” (Tom Thumb), and used only earphones and was soon followed by the “Corona” which included a loudspeaker. Radios like the “Huldra” and “Sølvsuper” became the foundation of Tandberg’s success and those early models are still cherished by radio aficionados today.
The Huldra series was named after a beautiful, seductive creature of Scandinavian folklore. The radios themselves were exquisitely made and a true innovation at the time, combining two quite different traditions: the European “super-radio” and the American style tuner-amplifier. Vebjørn was often said to be particularly proud of this line of products.
As radio became more popular in the pre-war period, demand began to increase rapidly and Vebjørn expanded production, opening several more factories as the Second World War loomed on the horizon.
Resistance against the Nazi occupation
When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, Norway’s official position was one of neutrality, but Hitler and his generals knew full well that the government was inclined to side with the British in case of direct Norwegian involvement in the war.
As the German war machine began to swallow up vast swathes of Western Europe, the Wehrmacht seized Norway’s capital as part of Operation Weserbüng in April 1940 and the dreaded Gestapo took over control of the state apparatus.
With radio the only means of mass communication at the time, the Nazis first order of business was to seize the then still partially built Norwegian National Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) building.
NRK’s highly advanced radio transmitters were then used to broadcast Nazi propaganda to Scandinavia and the rest of Northern Europe as far as Scotland and Ireland.
The Nazis immediately censored the press, limited all official Norwegian communication to that of the pro-Nazi puppet government of reviled national traitor Vidkun Quisling, and seized the radios of the entire civilian population in an effort to quell any resistance.
This forced the Tandberg company, by this time with a staff of 92, into a potentially ruinous position.
Vebjørn Tandberg came up with a brilliant solution that was ingenious in its simplicity. He asked his customers to make a contract for the purchase of radios to be delivered once the Nazis had been defeated.
The Norwegian people’s faith in their eventual victory and freedom led them to pre-order radio sets in their thousands. When victory in Europe was declared, 5000 radio sets were ready to be delivered and the Tandberg company was saved.
Over time, Tandberg would develop a more varied portfolio of products, first with tape recorders, then television sets and, later, some incredibly forward-thinking video communication solutions. But it would be with his reel-to-reel tape recorders that Vebjørn and his company would make one of their most memorable contributions to history.
JFK’s secret recordings – on Tandberg tapes
In the Spring of 1962, a year after his election, President John F. Kennedy secretly asked a senior Secret Service agent, Robert I Bouck, to install a tape recording system in the White House.
It’s still a matter of debate amongst historians as to why Kennedy chose to install the recording system and his reasons will probably remain a mystery forever.
But the reason he chose Tandberg’s Norwegian-designed and built Model 5 reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder is in no doubt. It came highly recommended by the U.S. Army Signal Corps and was considered the highest quality available anywhere in the world at the time.
The tapes, capable of a full 2 hours (!) of recording per reel, were activated by means of a James Bond-esque hidden switch, disguised as a pen socket in the Oval Office’s legendary Resolute Desk. The majority of Kennedy’s secret tape recordings would later be made public and enter the U.S. National Archive.
This treasure trove of information would prove invaluable to historians and allow us to better understand some of the most pivotal moments of the 20th Century, not least of which the recordings made during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962.
It is only thanks to these tapes that we now know just how close the world was to nuclear annihilation.
On the day of Kennedy’s assassination, with Airforce One airborne above Texas and LBJ being sworn in as the 36th POTUS, Robert Bouck began disassembling JFK’s Tandberg tape-recording systems. Bouck would later say he removed the tapes because he “didn’t want Lyndon Johnson to get to listen to them”.
Adding to the intrigue, some of those Tandberg tapes went missing. Nothing remains of any tapes made after November 8th, 1963, 14 days before his assassination.
Who knows what those Tandberg reels contained? Perhaps we’ll never know. The mystery endures.
A pioneer in business culture
Tandberg employees’ love for Vebjørn Tandberg was reciprocal. He introduced extraordinary social programs for his employees that were years ahead of the time.
He instituted a 42-hour working week and 3 weeks annual vacation for all employees in 1937. In 1938 he introduced a free pension and health insurance scheme.
A 4 week vacation for all employees over 40 years of age was introduced in 1947, while the working week was further reduced to 39 hours in 1948.
He introduced extraordinary social programs for his employees. In 1938 he introduced a free pension and health insurance scheme for all employees and was one of the first to introduce child benefits.
Vebjørn was an extraordinarily generous and caring man, as well as being famously idiosyncratic.
To enter his home was to step into another world. Dressed in Hawaiian shirt and cotton trousers, Vebjørn would welcome guests with the words ‘Welcome to paradise’ and promptly be commanded to perform a Finnish folk dance, “Letkajenka” around the swimming pool that doubled as his living room (a wonderful video accompanies this piece which we encourage you to watch).
Dressed in Hawaiian shirt and cotton trousers, Vebjørn would welcome guests with the words ‘Welcome to paradise’ and promptly be commanded to perform a Finnish folk dance.
When the great Jazz maestro Louis Armstrong visited Oslo in 1952, he played the Colosseum Cinema. Vebjørn himself made a live recording on one of his own tape recorders and would later play the tape for guests on his own speakers, including those installed underwater in his pool.
Former employees would later recall this fantastic atmosphere as one of the greatest experiences of their lives.
“You are my family. You are my babies, Vebjørn used to say. In many ways he was probably a lonely man, I think, but he was an extremely nice person,” – former employee Tove Gjerdrum.
Vebjørn’s decline, downfall and a tragic end
In 1972, he acquired Tandberg’s biggest Norwegian competitor, Radionette, and nearly doubled the production area of the company, transforming Tandberg into one of the largest technology companies in Norway.
Sadly, this would be a step too far.
During the mid-70s, Tandberg would face fierce competition from Japanese electronics companies and eventually face bankruptcy. Amidst bitter recriminations, the Norwegian state stepped in to save the company at a cost of more than $40m.
Vebjørn was left with no holdings in the business he had built from nothing and was ousted from the board.
He continued to visit the factories and found it difficult to walk away but would find his hand cruelly forced in August 1978 after a shareholder revolt removed him from control. He soon received a letter from the new leadership asking him to stay away from the business.
Vebjørn found himself with little left to live for and, in a tragedy that still affects many, he would take his own life on the same day he received the letter, August 30th, 1978. A heartbreaking end to a truly remarkable life.
In December of that same year, the Tandberg Radio Company would close its doors but would later reemerge as simply “Tandberg”. It would rise again to become an electronics manufacturer of world renown and an industry leader in the field of video communication.
Vebjørn’s spirit of kindness and sense of playfulness was ingrained in the culture and would live on in the hearts and minds of those who had the good fortune to work there until the last day and beyond.
At Huddly, our culture is built on those foundations and we strive to honour the principles he set out. We are not alone in our gratitude for what he did. His name will never be forgotten.
Building on Vebjørn Tandberg’s legacy
In researching this piece I’ve spoken to many people who worked at Tandberg and what they have to say about working there is remarkably consistent.
Without fail, they tell me it was a wonderful place to work, with an unparalleled culture of inclusiveness, respect for one another, warmth and, without wishing to put too fine a point on it, of love.
Many describe it as the best time of their life.
When people leave our world, they don’t leave us alone. Their ideas, their inventions, dreams and memories live beyond them.
Yes, the technical excellence and commitment to innovation and quality of the Tandberg company is an important part of what we, and others, have inherited. But that pales into insignificance when we think of the contributions of the man who built it.
Vebjørn was a star. A genius. Even today, 4 decades after he passed, the “Tandbergene” meet every few months at the Tandberg museum in Bodø to reminisce and swap stories about the unforgettable times they enjoyed under his stewardship and I can understand why.
Vebjørn Otto Tandberg is a man worth remembering.
As ever, thank you for reading, and don’t forget to have a look at huddly.com.
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