|Defunct||February 7, 1996|
|Fate||Absorption, remnants operating as Nokia|
|Headquarters||Manhattan, New York City, US.|
|Products||Telephones, Central office switches, computers, electrical and electronics parts, and all other telecommunications related products supplied to Bell System companies|
The Western Electric Company was an American electrical engineering and manufacturing company officially founded in 1869. A wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T for most of its lifespan, it served as the primary equipment manufacturer, supplier, and purchasing agent for the Bell System from 1881 to 1984 when it was dismantled. The company was responsible for many technological innovations as well as developments in industrial management.
In 1856, George Shawk, a craftsman and telegraph maker, purchased an electrical engineering business in Cleveland, Ohio. On December 31, 1869, he entered a partnership with Enos M. Barton, and later sold his share to inventor Elisha Gray. In 1872, Barton and Gray moved the business to Clinton Street, Chicago, Illinois, and 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 telegraph company Western Union, to whom they supplied relays and other equipment.
In 1875, Gray sold his interests to Western Union, including the caveat that he had filed against Alexander Graham Bell's patent application for the telephone. The ensuing legal battle between Western Union and the Bell Telephone Company over patent rights ended in 1879 with Western Union withdrawing from the telephone market and Bell acquiring Western Electric in 1881. This purchase was a crucial step in standardizing telephone instruments and concentrating manufacturing in a single entity.
In 1897, the building at 463 West Street, New York was constructed and housed the New York shop as well as the company Eastern headquarters.
Western Electric was the first company to join in a Japanese joint venture with foreign capital. In 1899, it invested in a 54% share of the Nippon Electric Company, Ltd. Western Electric's representative in Japan was Walter Tenney Carleton.
In 1901, Western Electric secretly purchased a controlling interest in a principal competitor, the Kellogg Switchboard & Supply Company, but in 1909 was forced by a lawsuit to sell back to Milo Kellogg.
In 1903, the construction of Hawthorne Works first buildings were authorized by Barton.
In 1907, the research and development staffs of Western Electric and AT&T were consolidated to 463 West Street, New York. The location served the newly Western Electric Engineering Department for the responsibility of the testing and inspection of its telephones and equipment. AT&T's Engineering Department retained the responsibility for the growth of the Bell System with compatible equipment and service. Gradually the consolidation improved and advanced the telephony response to expanding use.
On July 24, 1915, employees of the Hawthorne Works boarded the SS Eastland in downtown Chicago for a company picnic. The ship rolled over at the dock and over 800 people died.
In 1920, Alice Heacock Seidel was the first of Western Electric's female employees to be given permission to stay on after she had married. This set a precedent in the company, which previously had not allowed married women in their employ. Miss Heacock had worked for Western Electric for sixteen years before her marriage, and was at the time the highest-paid secretary in the company. In her memoirs, she wrote that the decision to allow her to stay on "required a meeting of the top executives to decide whether I might remain with the Company, for it established a precedent and a new policy for the Company – that of married women in their employ. If the women at the top were permitted to remain after marriage then all women would expect the same privilege. How far and how fast the policy was expanded is shown by the fact that a few years later women were given maternity leaves with no loss of time on their service records."
In 1925, ITT purchased the Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company of Brussels, Belgium, and other worldwide subsidiaries from AT&T, to avoid an antitrust action. The company manufactured rotary system switching equipment under the Western Electric brand.
Early on, Western Electric also managed an electrical equipment 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, in honor of the company's founders, Elisha Gray and Enos Barton.
Bell Telephone Laboratories, created from the engineering department of Western Electric in 1925, was half-owned by Western Electric, the other half belonging to AT&T.
Western Electric used various logos during its existence. Starting in 1914 it used an image of AT&T's statue Spirit of Communication.
|Period||Name of President||Lifetime|
|1||December 1881 – January 1885||Anson Stager||1825–1885|
|2||January 1885 – February 1886||William Algernon Sydney Smoot||1845–1886|
|3||October 1886 – October 1908||Enos Melancthon Barton||1842–1916|
|4||October 1908 – July 1919||Harry Bates Thayer||1858–1936|
|5||July 1919 – August 1926||Charles Gilbert Du Bois||1870–1940|
|6||August 1926 – December 1939||Edgar Selden Bloom||b.-d.?|
|7||January 1940 – September 1947||Clarence Griffith Stoll||b.-d.?|
|8||October 1947 – December 1953||Stanley Bracken||1890–1966|
|9||January 1954 – September 1956||Frederick Kappel||1902–1994|
|10||September 1956 – March 1959||Arthur Burton Goetze||b.- d.?|
|11||March 1959 – December 1963||Haakon Ingolf Romnes||1907–1973|
|12||January 1964 – November 1969||Paul Albert Gorman||1908–1996|
|13||December 1969 – October 1971||Harvey George Mehlhouse||b.?-1998|
|14||November 1971 — December 1983||Donald Eugene Procknow||1923–2016 |
In 1915, the assets of Western Electric Manufacturing were transferred to a newly incorporated company in New York, New York, named Western Electric Company, Inc, a wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T. The sole reason for the transfer was to provide for the issuance of a non-voting preferred class of capital stock, disallowed under the statutes of the state of Illinois.
In the Bell System, telephones were leased by the operating companies to subscribers, and remained the property of the Bell System. Service subscribers paid a monthly fee included in the service charge, while paying additionally for special types or features of telephones, such as colored telephone sets. Equipment repair was included in the fees. This system had the effect of subsidizing basic telephone service, keeping local telephone service inexpensive, under $10 per month. After divestiture, basic service prices increased, and customers became responsible for inside building wiring and telephone equipment. The Bell System had an extensive policy and infrastructure to recycle or refurbish equipment taken out of service, replacing all defective, weak, or otherwise unusable parts for new installations. This resulted in extraordinary longevity of Western Electric telephones, and limited the variety of new designs introduced into the market place. This led Western Electric to pursue extreme reliability and durability in design to minimize 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 quality of manufacture of Western Electric telephones.
AT&T also strictly enforced policies against using telephone equipment by other manufacturers on their network. A customer who insisted on using a telephone not supplied by the Bell System had to first transfer the phone to the local Bell operating company, who leased the phone back to the customer for a monthly charge in addition to a re-wiring fee. In the 1970s when consumers increasingly bought telephone sets from other manufacturers, AT&T changed the policy for its Design Line telephone series by selling customers the phone housing, retaining ownership of the internal mechanical and electrical components, which still required paying AT&T a monthly leasing fee.
Starting in 1983 with the breakup of the Bell System, Western Electric telephones could be sold to the public under the brand name American Bell, a newly created subsidiary of AT&T. One of the terms of the Modification of Final Judgment in the Bell System divestiture procedures prohibited AT&T from using the name Bell after January 1, 1984; prior to this, AT&T's plan was to market products and services under the American Bell name, accompanied by the now familiar AT&T globe logo.
In 1903, Western Electric began construction of the Hawthorne Works on the outskirts of Chicago and which, by 1914 had absorbed all manufacturing work from Clinton Street and Western Electric's other plant in New York City.
Further expansion of large factories began in the 1920s. In 1923, construction began on the second factory located in Kearny, New Jersey. The location was known as Kearny Works and in 1925 began telephone cable production. In 1929, work began at Point Breeze, Baltimore, Maryland as the third manufacturing location, Baltimore Works, began its occupancy by 1930 for various cable and wire production.
In 1944, Western Electric purchased a factory in St. Paul, Minnesota to restart manufacture of telephone sets for civilian installation as authorized by War Production Board. By 1946, some of these facilities were relocated to the Hawthorne plant as space became available from war-production scale down.
Also, the reduced production of home telephones because of the war, began to have a backlog of two million orders in late 1945 for the Hawthorne plant. Western Electric had acquired a former Studebaker plant on Archer Avenue (Chicago, Illinois) for assemblers that produced out one hundred thousand Model 302s telephones by March 1946.
In July 1948, the equipment plant at Duluth, Minnesota was involved in the National Labors Act with bargaining units of IAM and IBEW.
After 1947, eight Works locations were built and occupied by 1961 at Allentown, Indianapolis, North Carolina, Merrimack Valley, Omaha, Columbus, Oklahoma City, and Kansas City for the high volume of manufacturing products. The North Carolina Works was located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Merrimack Valley Works location was in North Andover, Massachusetts. The Kansas City Works location was in Lee's Summit, Missouri.
By the time AT&T was dissolved in the early 1980s, more than twenty production plants around the country ("Works" locations) had been established. Locations of these facilities included:
|Allentown Works||Allentown, Pennsylvania||555 Union Boulevard||1948||microelectronics||later Agere Systems|
|Atlanta Works||Norcross, Georgia||2000 Northeast Expressway||1969||undersea cables, later fiber-optic cables|||
|Baltimore Works||Baltimore, Maryland||Broening Highway||1929||coaxial and marine cables, wire, cords||plant operated from 1930 to 1984|
|Buffalo Plant||Tonawanda, New York||1946||telephone cords and switches||ceased operation Nov. 4, 1977|
|Columbia River Switching Equipment Works||Vancouver, Washington||crossbar switching equipment||590 IBEW employees in 1974|
|Columbus Works||Columbus, Ohio||6200 E. Broad Street||1957||switching equipment|||
|Dallas Works||Mesquite, Texas||3000 Skyline Drive||1970||electronic switches and power equipment/supplies|||
|Denver Works||Westminster, Colorado||1100 W. 120th Avenue||1972||Dimension and Horizon business PBX systems|||
|Engineering Research Center (ERC)||Princeton, New Jersery||330 Carter Road||1961||R&D on manufacturing technologies|||
|Greensboro Shops||Greensboro, North Carolina||military equipment||ceased operation in 1976|
|Hawthorne Works||Cicero, Illinois||Cicero Avenue and Cermak Road||1905||metal parts/tools, capacitors, thin-film circuits, switchboards||Closed in 1983 and subsequently demolished, one of the towers remains.|
|Indianapolis Works||Indianapolis, Indiana||2525 Shadeland Avenue||1950||consumer telephone sets|||
|Kansas City Works||Lee's Summit, Missouri||777 N. Blue Parkway||1961||electronics, switching equipment|||
|Kearny Works||Kearny, New Jersey||3 Distribution Avenue||1925||power supplies and other equipment|||
|Merrimack Valley Works||North Andover, Massachusetts||1600 Osgood Street||1956||transmission equipment|||
|Montgomery Works||Montgomery, Illinois||River Street||1955||telephone parts||closed and demolished 1987|
|New River Valley Plant||Radford, Virginia||Circa 1980||Caller 21|||
|North Illinois Works||Lisle, Illinois||4513 Western Avenue||1970s||3ESS, 4ESS switches, 3B5/15/4000 computer systems|
|Oklahoma City Works||Oklahoma City, Oklahoma||7725 W. Reno Avenue||1961||payphones, switching equipment|||
|Omaha Works||Omaha, Nebraska||132nd and L Streets||1958||crossbar, dial, and PBX equipment, cable, relays||"Two key buildings that were part of the original complex: Building 20 (the property’s iconic office building) and Building 30 (a former manufacturing/warehouse facility)." were purchased upon the closure in November 2011.|
|Orlando Works||Orlando, Florida||9701 and 9333 John Young Parkway||early 1980s||microelectronics||later Agere Systems|
|Phoenix Works||Phoenix, Arizona||505 N. 51st Avenue||1967||cable and wire|||
|Pittsburgh Distribution House||Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania||6585 Penn Avenue||1904||plates/glass||260 employees in 1966|
|Reading Works||Reading, Pennsylvania||2525 North 12th Street||1962||microelectronics||later Agere Systems|
|Richmond Works||Richmond, Virginia||4500 Laburnum Avenue||1970s|||
|Shreveport Works||Shreveport, Louisiana||9595 Mansfield Road||1966||business and consumer telephone sets, payphones|||
|Winston-Salem Works||Winston-Salem, North Carolina||3300 Old Lexington Road S.E.||1946, 1954||military and wave guide equipment||Plant located at 800 Chatham Rd. 1946-1954|
In 1926, Western Electric issued the first Bell System telephone with a handset containing both the transmitter and receiver in the same unit. Previous telephones had been of the candlestick type which featured a stationary transmitter in the desktop set or the wall-mounted unit, and a hand-held receiver to be placed on the user's ear. The first version of the desktop unit was constructed by shortening the candlestick shaft to about an inch in height and placing a handset cradle on the top. This was the A-type handset mounting, which was replaced by 1928 by the B handset mounting, which featured a streamlined shape integrating the shaft as a short neck for the cradle. It still had the same circular footprint of the candlestick, which proved too unstable when dialing numbers, and was henceforth replaced with a wider design using an oval footprint, the D-type base in 1930.
Concurrently with the mechanical advances, the electrical circuitry of Western Electric telephones saw advances in sidetone reduction. Sidetone is feedback by which the users of the telephone can hear their own voice in the receiver. While a desirable property, this feedback, when too loud, causes most users to lower their voice volume to unacceptable levels. Until after the introduction in 1930 of the D handset mountings, sets still contained no active sidetone compensation. Such handset telephone types were designated with the assembly code 102, while later models containing anti-sidetone circuitry were the type 202 telephone set. These early desktop telephones relied on an additional desk set box or subscriber set (subset) containing the ringer with gongs, the induction coil, and capacitors to interface with the telephone network. These subscriber sets were typically mounted on a wall near the operating location for the telephone.
In 1936 the model 302 telephone was announced, which was the first Western Electric instrument that combined the desktop telephone set with the subscriber set and ringer in one unit. It became the mainstay of American telephone service well into the 1950s, and was followed by the model 500 telephone starting in 1950, which became the most extensively produced telephone model in the industry's history. The 500-set was continually updated over time, reflecting new materials and manufacturing processes, such as quieter and smoother dial gearing and a printed circuit board for the network electronics. The model 500 was discontinued in 1986, in favor of the type 2500, that had been available since 1969. The 2500-series employed dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) signaling for transmitting digits to the central office, replacing the rotary dial. DTMF technology was referred to by the trademark Touch-Tone.
Other innovations included the Princess telephones of the 1960s, followed shortly by the Trimline models.
Western Electric's switching equipment development commenced in the mid-1910s with the rotary system and the panel switch, later several generations of cross-bar switches, and finally the development of several generations of electronic switching systems (ESS). The No. 1 ESS was first installed in 1965. The 4ESS was the first digital toll switching system, implemented in 1976. Finally, in 1981, the 5ESS was implemented throughout the United States.
In 1929, Western Electric entered as a market competitor for 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. Western Electric designed a wide-audio-range horn loudspeaker for cinemas. This was estimated to be 25% 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 (tubes) were not generally available.
In addition to being a supplier to the Bell System, Western Electric played a major role in the development and production of professional sound recording and reproducing equipment, including:
For these reasons, many American films of this period feature the Western Electric/Westrex logo in their on-screen credits.
In 1950, at the start of the Cold War, Western Electric was selected to build the first demonstrator for the SOSUS anti-submarine sound surveillance system. Later, the company was prime contractor for the Safeguard anti-ballistic missile system, which operated briefly from 1975.
Western Electric also invested heavily in improving processes and equipment to manufacture their products.
In 1958, the company established the Engineering Research Center (ERC) near Princeton, New Jersey. With a charter distinct from Bell Labs, Western Electric's ERC was one of the first research organizations solely dedicated to the advancement of manufacturing-focused, rather than product-focused science. Here, more than 400 researchers and engineers worked to bring new manufacturing technologies into the company's production environment. Their developments included computer-driven mathematical models and related statistical quality-control systems to improve production flow and logistics, novel metal-forming techniques, circuit board assembly automation, fiber-optic waveguide manufacturing techniques, application of lasers for industrial processes and early efforts in cleanroom robotics for semiconductor production. In the early 1970s, some of the first practical Ion Implanters to make integrated circuits were also developed at ERC and later deployed at Western Electric's chip-making factories.
Although the ERC was later integrated into Bell Labs, it – along with AT&T's nearby Corporate Education Center – was closed by the late 1990s, victims of the deregulation of telecommunications, shrinking revenues from long-distance calls and accelerating innovation in telephone equipment by an increasing number of global manufacturing players.
Western Electric was authorized on November 15, 1955 with Air Force Contract AF33(616)-3285 to conduct a competitive study directed specifically only to Anti-ICBM (AICBM) defense. In February 1957, the U.S. Army awarded the company, as a contractor, responsibility in developing an AICBM defense system called NIKE-ZEUS. On February 12, 1959, a test program for NIKE-ZEUS was approved by Department of Defense for Kwajalein as the down-range test site. After the site was inspected on August 4, 1959 by Western Electric project managers and various agencies/contractors, the completion of the technical building and launch facilities were done. Shortly after, Western Electric equipment engineers and installers arrived for the installation of the NIKE-ZEUS test site. The North Carolina plant made the R&D models for the system elements and installed, tested, and operated the components at the test site.
In 1960, NASA awarded Western Electric a contract for over $33,000,000 (equivalent to $302,271,091 in 2021) for engineering and construction of a tracking system for the Project Mercury program. As part of this effort, Western Electric engineers trained remote-site flight controllers and Project Mercury control center and operations personnel.
As of January 1, 1984, a newly formed company, AT&T Technologies, Inc., assumed the corporate charter of Western Electric, which was split into several divisions, each focusing on a particular type of customer, e.g., AT&T Technology Systems, and AT&T Network Systems. Telephones made by Western Electric prior to the breakup continued to be manufactured and marked with the company emblem, however, lacking the Bell System logo, or having it hidden by metal filler inside of all telephone housings and most components, including new electronic integrated circuits with the initials WE. 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 1990s.
Cost-cutting measures resulted in the consumer telephones being redesigned and modernized in 1985, as well as more plastic being used in place of metal in the 500 & 2500 series phones, as well as the Princess. In 1986, the Indianapolis Works telephone plant closed, and US production of AT&T single-line home telephones ended. Business telephones and systems continued production in the Shreveport Works plant until 2001. Home telephones were redesigned, and production was moved to Hong Kong, Singapore, China, and Thailand. 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 an end in 1995 when AT&T changed the name of AT&T Technologies to Lucent Technologies, in preparation for its spinoff. Lucent became independent in 1996, and sold more assets into Advanced American Telephones, Agere Systems, Avaya, and Consumer Phone Services. Lucent itself merged with Alcatel, forming Alcatel-Lucent, which was acquired by Nokia in 2016. Western Electric's structured cabling unit, once known as AT&T Network Systems or SYSTIMAX, was spun off from Avaya and became part of CommScope.
Since the demise of Western Electric, telephone equipment design and manufacturing is an open market place in which numerous manufacturers compete. As a result, modern telephones are now manufactured in Asia, generally using less expensive components and labor.
Some telephone subscribers declined to purchase their existing telephones after the AT&T breakup, and continue to lease their existing Western Electric models from QLT Consumer Lease Services, formerly known as AT&T Consumer Lease Services. Such subscribers have paid leasing fees for their telephones far in excess of the purchase price, 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.
Western Electric's audio equipment from the 1920s and 30s, designed to be used in movie theaters, is now prized by collectors[who?] and audiophiles due to its quality construction and sound reproduction. This includes its massive horn loudspeakers designed to fill a large theater with sound from a relatively low-powered tube amplifier.
Main article: Western Electric (tube manufacturer)
In 1994, the stylized brand name Western Electric was acquired as the trademark of the Western Electric Export Corporation, a privately owned high-end audio company in Rossville, Georgia. The company specializes in manufacturing vacuum tubes and high end audio equipment. Amongst other products, the company has revived the Western Electric 300B electron tube.
During the span of its existence of over a dozen decades, Western Electric published a variety of publications for various audiences, including periodicals for employees and customers.
The first employee magazine was Western Electric News, commencing in March 1912 (Volume 1, Number 1) under company president Harry Bates Thayer. Its purpose was to provide a forum where ideas could be exchanged, the company events and activities could be recorded, and to serve as clearing house for technical and commercial information of value to the employee.
In 1948, Western Electric began publishing the monthly house organ WE for employees of the company. The magazine was published into the 1980s.
Starting in 1957, Western Electric published The Western Electric Engineer (ISSN 0043-3659), later known as The Engineer, on a subscription basis.
Western Electric produced many educational and marketing films that focused on the products associated with telephony or the company's inventions. For example,
|Harold D. Arnold||In April 1913, developed amplified sound in a high-vacuum tube for telephone cables using his expertise in electron physics.|
|Edward Craft||Worked from 1902 until 1929 at the company. In the 1920s, he made the decision for the company to work on sound systems for the moving picture industry.  He held 70 patents in electrical communication.|
|W. Edwards Deming||Worked with Shewhart and Juran to become the three founders of the quality improvement movement. A continuous improvement method of management and policy were called, the Deming cycle, or commonly known as the Plan–Do–Check–Act (PDCA) cycle. The Deming Prize was established in honor of Deming's help with statistical quality control in Japan.|
|George Halas||A summer hire at Hawthorne Works and a player of company sports, was late to attend the summer picnic on the tragic S.S. Eastland disaster of 1915. After Western Electric, was one of the founders of the National Football League and the coach for the Chicago Bears.|
|Betty Hall||Worked producing vacuum tubes during World War II. After leaving the company in 1944, Hall would go on to serve in the New Hampshire House of Representatives for a total of 28 years.|
|Beatrice Alice Hicks||First female engineer in 1942 at Western Electric. Worked on long-distance telephone technology and developed a crystal oscillator, utilized for aircraft communications that generated radio frequencies. During her work at Kearny Works, attended Columbia University for courses in electrical engineering. In 1945, she left Western Electric and became a consultant. Her continued studies and paths outside of Western Electric were accomplished and rewarding.|
|Bonnie Small||Worked in Allentown plant in the 1950s after the transistor was made. Used Shewhart's methods to improve plant performance in quality control and made up to 5000 control charts. In 1958, “The Western Electric Statistical Quality Control Handbook” had appeared from her writings and led to use at AT&T.|
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The last USA based Agere manufacturing plant in Orlando, Florida, which once employed 1,800, was closed on September 30, 2005, after 20 years of semiconductors manufacture and sold in 2007.
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