Infobox Defunct Company
company_name = Western Electric Co., Inc.
fate = Absorption
foundation = 1872
defunct = 1995
New York, NY, USA
products = Customer Premises Equipment, Central Office Switches,
Telephones, Wire, and all other telecommunications related products supplied to Bell Operating Companies
parent = AT&T (1881-1995)
Western Electric Company (sometimes abbreviated WE and WECo) was an American
electrical engineeringcompany, the manufacturing arm of AT&T from 1881 to 1995. It was the scene of a number of technological innovations and also some seminal developments in industrial management. It also served as the purchasing agent for the member companies of the Bell System.
In 1856, George Shawk purchased an
electrical engineeringbusiness in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1869, he became partners with Enos M. Bartonand, later the same year, sold his share to inventor Elisha Gray. In 1872 Barton and Gray moved the business to Clinton Street, Chicago, Illinoisand incorporated it as the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. They manufactured a variety of electrical products including typewriters, alarms and lighting and had a close relationship with the telegraphcompany Western Unionto whom they supplied relays and other equipment.
In 1875, Gray sold his interests to Western Union, including the
caveatthat he had filed against Alexander Graham Bell's patentapplication for the telephone. The ensuing legal battle over patentrights, between Western Union and the Bell Telephone Company, ended in 1879 with Western Union withdrawing from the telephone market and Bell acquiring Western Electric in 1881.
Western Electric Company was the first company to join in a Japanese joint venture with foreign capital. It invested in Nippon Electric Company, Ltd. in 1899. Western Electric held 54% of NEC at the time. Their representative in Japan was
Walter Tenney Carleton.
A few years later WECO secretly purchased controlling interest in
Kellogg Switchboard & Supply company, a principal competitor, but was forced by a lawsuit to sell.
Early on, Western Electric also managed a thriving electrical distribution business, furnishing its customers with non-telephone products made by other manufacturers. This electrical distribution business was spun off from Western Electric in 1925 and organized into a separate company,
Graybar Electric Company.
Despite the existence of 1,300 independent telephone companies, the
Bell System, popularly known as "Ma Bell," had a near-monopoly on long-distance service in the United States from 1881 until nearly the time of its break-up in 1984, and monopolies in local service for most American regions during that same period.Fact|date=December 2007 AT&T secured all U.S. urban areas in the early 20th century.Fact|date=December 2007 The independent companies were left to serve less-profitable outlying areas and vast stretches of rural America.
The bulk of AT&T revenue came from the Bell System —
Bell Operating Companies, such as The New York Telephone Co., The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. and Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. Other divisions of AT&T and parts of the Bell Systemincluded Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. (Bell Labs), AT&T Long Linesand Western Electric, the manufacturing arm.
Development of a monopoly
In 1915, Western Electric Manufacturing was incorporated in
New York, New Yorkas a wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T, under the name Western Electric Company, Inc [cite book |last=Jackson |first=Kenneth T. |title=The Encyclopedia of New York City|year=1995 |publisher=The New York Historical Society; Yale University Press|location= New York, NY|isbn=0-300-05536-6 | pages= P.1254] .
All telephones in areas where AT&T subsidiaries provided local service, all components of the
public switched telephone network(PSTN), and all devices connected to the network were made by Western Electric and no other devices were allowed to be connected to AT&T's network. To enforce their monopoly, AT&T and Bell System companies employed small armies of inspectors to check household line voltage levels to determine if non-leased phones were in use by consumers.Fact|date=April 2008
Western Electric-made phones were owned not by individual customers, but by local Bell System telephone companies — all of which were in turn owned by AT&T, which also owned Western Electric itself. Instead, each phone was leased from AT&T on a monthly basis by customers, who generally paid for their phone and its connection many times over in cumulative lease fees. This monopoly made millions of extra dollars for AT&T and Western Electric, which had the secondary effect of subsidizing telephone service, which kept basic local phone service very low - under $10 per month, "including" the leased phone. After divestiture, basic dial tone service went up in price by leaps and bounds, and the customer was now responsible for all of his wiring and telephone equipment. Many phones made by Western Electric carried the following disclaimer permanently molded into their housings: "BELL SYSTEM PROPERTY—NOT FOR SALE." Telephones also labeled with a sticker marking the Bell Operating Company that owned the telephone. To increase revenues, the
Bell Systemsometimes remodelled older-design returned phones with new housings, then leased them for use in new installations. The longevity of Western Electric phone models and the limited number of new designs was a direct result of AT&T and Bell System control of new phone sales in a monopolistic system.
AT&T also strictly enforced policies against buying and using phones by other manufacturers. A customer who insisted on using a phone not supplied by the Bell System had to first transfer the phone to the local Bell monopoly, who leased the purchased phone back to the customer for a monthly charge plus a 're-wiring' fee.Fact|date=April 2008 In the 1970s, after some consumers began buying phones from other manufacturers anyway, AT&T changed its policy for its
Design Line telephoneseries by selling customers the phone's housing, retaining ownership of the mechanical components — which still required paying AT&T a monthly leasing fee.
Until 1983, Western Electric telephones and/or their inner mechanical components continued to be leased by subscribers and never sold, and so had to be repaired at no charge if they failed. This led Western Electric to pursue extreme reliability and durability in design in hopes of minimizing service calls. In particular, the work of
Walter A. Shewhart, who developed new techniques for statistical quality control in the 1920s, helped lead to the legendary quality of manufacture of Western Electric telephones. In 1983, Western Electric telephones began being sold to the public through the newly created American Bell subsidiary of AT&T, under the American Bell brand name. Prior to Judge Greene prohibiting AT&T from using the Bell name after January 1 1984the plan was to market products and services under the American Bell name, accompanied by the now familiar AT&T globe logo.AT&T's only serious rival in providing phone service was General Telephone and Electronics(GTE), which operated its own manufacturing arm, Automatic Electric.
In 1905 Western Electric began construction of the
Hawthorne Workson the outskirts of Chicagoand which, by 1914 had absorbed all manufacturing work from Clinton Street and Western Electric's other plant in New York. Later large factories included the Kearny Works and Columbus Works.
In 1928, Western Electric issued the first American telephone with a single handset, having both the transmitter and receiver placed thereon (previous telephones had been of the "candlestick" type). This telephone was known as the "102" phone, and had a round base; it was succeeded in 1930 by the "202" phone, which featured upgraded electronics (
sidetonesuppression) and a more stable oval base.
The next significant upgrade came in 1937 with the introduction of the "302" phone. Designed by the noted industrial designer
Henry Dreyfuss, this telephone included the ringer within its rectangular housing; previous models (including the candlestick) had required a separate "bell box." The 302 was followed by the "500" phone, which would become the most extensively-produced telephone model in the industry's history. Initially released in 1949, it was continually updated over time, reflecting new materials and manufacturing processes, such as quieter and smoother dial gearing and a printed circuit board in the "network" (the phone's circuit module). The Model 500 was discontinued in 1986, in favor of a Touch-Tone version that also electronically emulated a rotary dial.
In 1929, Western Electric was also a big player in early cinema sound systems. It created the Western Electric Universal Base, a device by which early silent cinema projectors could be adapted to screen sound films. It also designed a wide-audio-range horn speaker for cinemas. This was estimated to be nearly 50% efficient, thus allowing a cinema to be filled with sound from a 3-watt amplifier. This was an important breakthrough in 1929 because high-powered audio valves were not generally available back then.
In addition to being a supplier for AT&T, Western Electric also played a major role in the development and production of professional
soundrecording and reproducing equipment, including:
Vitaphonesystem which brought sound to the movies;
* the electrical recording technology adopted by record companies in the late 1920s (despite te popular electrical system used by
Autograph Recordsand its manager, Orlando R. Marsh;
* the Orthophonic phonograph, an acoustical phonograph with a flat frequency response tailored for reproduction of electrically recorded disks;
Westrexoptical sound that succeeded it;
Westrexcutter and system for recording stereophonicsound in a single-groove gramophone recordthat was compatible with monophonic equipment.
*Western Electric were pioneers of the
scientific managementof Frederick Winslow Taylor.
Walter A. Shewhartdeveloped the control chartat the Hawthorne Worksin 1924.
Hawthorne experimentsin industrial productivity were conducted there from 1924 to 1936.
*Western Electrics' reputation for sound management was such that in 1949 President Truman requested that Western Electric manage a major defense laboratory,
Sandia National Labs.
The end of Western Electric
January 1, 1984, the new AT&T Technologies, Inc.assumed the corporate charter of Western Electric, which was then split up into several divisions, each focusing on a particular type of customer (e.g. AT&T Technology Systems, AT&T Network Systems). Telephones made by Western Electric prior to the breakup continued to be manufactured and continued to be marked "Western Electric", with the Bell logo absent, or "hidden" by metal filler inside of all telephone housings and most components, including new electronic integrated circuitswith the famous "WE" initials. Electronic Switching Systems, outside plant materials, and other equipment produced for the consumption of the RBOCs continued to be marked "AT&T Western Electric" well into the 90s.
Cost-cutting measures resulted in the consumer telephones, including the Trimline being redesigned and "modernized" in 1985, as well as more plastic being used in place of metal on the 500 & 2500 series phones, as well as the Princess. In 1986, the
IndianapolisWorks telephone plant closed, and US production of AT&T single line home phones ended. Business telephones and systems continued production in the ShreveportWorks plant until 2001. Home telephones were redesigned and production was moved overseas to Hong Kong, Singapore, China, and Bangkok. Western Electric no longer marked housings of telephones with "WE", but continued to mark the modular plugs of telephone cords with "WE".
Western Electric came to a total end in 1995 when AT&T changed the name of AT&T Technologies to
Lucent Technologies, in preparation for its spinoff. All modular telephone plugs were now marked with "HHE" enclosed in an oval. Lucent would become independent in 1996, and sold/spun off more assets into Advanced American Telephones, Agere Systems, Avaya, and Consumer Phone Services. Lucent itself merged with Alcatel, forming Alcatel-Lucent. Western Electric's Structured Cabling unit, once known as AT&T Network Systems or SYSTIMAX, was spun off from Avayaand is now part of CommScope.
The assets once part of one Western Electric Co. now are in the hands of more than five companies.
Since the demise of Western Electric, telephones and telephone equipment have been made by numerous manufacturers. As a result of increased
competition, modern telephones are now made in Asia, generally using less expensive components.
Some people never purchased telephones after the AT&T breakup and continue to lease their existing Western Electric models from
AT&T Consumer Lease Services. Such people have paid for their telephones ten or more times over, but the phones are perceived by some users to be superior to telephones commonly made today in aspects of durability and sound quality. Today many of these Western Electric telephones have become collector's items, renowned for their reliability.
Western Electric's audio equipment from the 1920s and 30s designed to be used in movie theaters is now highly prized by collectors and audiophiles due to its high quality construction and sound reproduction. This includes its massive horn speakers designed to fill a large theater with sound from a relatively low powered tube amplifier.
Graybar Electric Company
* Adams, Stephen B., and Orville R. Butler. "Manufacturing the Future: A History of Western Electric". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-521-65118-2.
*Fagen, M. D., ed. "A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Volume 1 The Early Years (1875–1925)". New York: The [Bell Telephone] Laboratories, 1975. ISBN ?.
*Fagen, M. D., ed. "A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Volume 2 National Service in War and Peace (1925–1975)". New York: The [Bell Telephone] Laboratories, 1978. ISBN 0-932764-00-2.
* [http://www.westernelectric.com/ Western Electric brand audio vacuum tubes]
* [http://www.arctos.com/dial/ Western Electric Telephone Models]
* [http://www.porticus.org/bell/westernelectric_history.html Western Electric History]
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