Western Electric, the equipment division of the Bell System, was the major manufacturer of telephones and telephone-related equipment in the United States for almost a century. Incorporated in 1872 by Elisha Gray and Enos M. Barton (who got their start together in 1869 in Cleveland), the Chicago-based company manufactured a wide range of electrical hardware, including telegraph equipment, bells, signal boxes, and fire alarms. In 1877, the firm shifted gears to produce telephone equipment for Western Union, but that alliance lasted only two years, halted by a patent-infringement lawsuit filed by the Bell Company. Western Electric tried to get back into the telephone business though the majority purchase of a Bell manufacturer called Gilliland Electric Co., but by 1882, the Bell Company itself had become the majority owner of Western Electric, which, in 1925, spun off all its non-telephone hardware products as Graybar, named in honor of Gray and Barton.
While Western Electric supplied Bell with a variety of wooden wall phones and candlestick styles from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th centuries, its first major innovation was the model A1, introduced in 1925. The A1 had a round brass base, an aluminum-alloy cradle and plunger, and a handset made partly of Bakelite and featuring both an earpiece and voice transmitter. Although this type of handset technology had been around since the turn of the century and was particularly popular in Europe, the A1 was the first major U.S. cradle phone to incorporate it. In 1927, the company introduced an improved version of its cradle phone called the B1, which was produced in a 102 version (a sidetone handset, in which both the caller's voice and the recipient's voice was routed into the earpiece) and a 202 version (an anti-sidetone phone with more sophisticated circuitry).
In 1930, the company introduced its oval-base D1 model, which is usually referred to as the 202 since the anti-sidetone version of the phone was so common. The 202 was Western Electric's workhorse telephone throughout the 1930s, and many families relied on them through World War II due to limitations on new consumer products (manufacturers like Western Electric retooled to support the war effort). For those customers, Western Electric frequently swapped out the old E1 model handsets on their 202 phones for newer F1 handsets, which were designed by Henry Dreyfuss in 1936 for an entirely new telephone model, the 302.
Initially produced in heavy pot metal and painted black, the 302 was the first widely available telephone to feature a ringer and anti-sidetone hardware housed within the phone’s central mechanism. In 1941, Western Electric switched from pot metal to a lighter thermoplastic body due to metal shortages caused by the war, and in 1942 production of 302 was suspended altogether. After the war, production of plastic phones in ivory, green, pink, red, and blue (the rarest color) resumed until 1954.
The 302 was updated by Henry Dreyfuss in 1949 to create the sleeker 500 model, which was the first phone to incorporate a coiled handset cord, a development possibly adapted from cords used in airplane cockpits. In another breakthrough, the 500 also allowed the user to control the volume of the ringer. As with the 302, the 500 was originally sold only in black but was eventually produced in a range of hues, from ivory to golden yellow to pink, with ads that read “Pick a phone from this garden of colors!” Due to parent company AT&T’s near telephone monopoly, the 500 became the standard American telephone for the next 30 years, when more than 100 variations of its design were made. In 1951, Western Electric was forced to license the model's design to other companies, further extending the phone’s ubiquity in American households.
Western Electric launched its line of Princess phones in 1959, which featured a smaller oval-shape, lighted dials, and a pastel-hued body designed to appeal to female customers. Its Trimline phone debuted in 1965, and imitated the popular Princess model with its slender body, lighted dial, and series of bright colors. However, the Trimline's dial was mounted on the center portion of the handset, a move that further simplified the act of making a call.
In 1984, Western Electric was divided into various components of AT&T. In 1995, the parent company dropped the Western Electric brand entirely.
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Thanks to our adaptation of a unique kind of statistical analysis that was originally developed by Bell Telephone's Walter Shewhart over 90 years ago to improve the quality of both manufactured goods and the processes used to produce them, we are able...Read more
A. Donald StrattonEatonton Messenger, February 4th
Mr. Stratton entered the business world in 1957 as a staff trainee at Western Electric in Kearny, N.J. He served in various management positions throughout the U.S. until 1988, when he joined StorageTek in Louisville, Colo. as vice president and chief...Read more
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Seeking a job with better pay and benefits, she applied at the old Western Electric plant in Cicero. She learned .... He taught at Howard University and worked for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company...Read more
How a 96-Year-Old Limerick Master Became a New York Times Top CommenterForward, February 4th
A fellow worker whispered to him once, “There goes one of those Jews,” as someone walked by. Eisenberg snapped back, “I'm one of those Jews!” His time at Western Electric was short, as he tried again in 1945 to apply for the Army. This time, the eye ...Read more
Western Electric site to possibly join National RegisterBurlington Times News, February 1st
City leaders could know as early as next week whether the Western Electric Industrial site has been selected to join the National Register of Historic Places. The Burlington City Council was briefed on the ... If placed on the register, the Western...Read more
Uniquely Omaha: Metro Building BlocksOmaha World-Herald, January 30th
Millard was a tiny burg southwest of the city that grew fast after construction of a big Western Electric plant nearby in the late 1950s. As the town's population sped toward 10,000, Omaha leaders said their city's growth to the southwest would be cut...Read more
Switchboard from Hotel Tupelo starts “Hidden Treasures”Leecountycourier, January 27th
The first example is a telephone switchboard which was in operation at the Hotel Tupelo (1920-1973). The switchboard was manufactured by Western Electric and is probably a model 552. It was the attendant console used with a private branch exchange ...Read more
Robert NawaBureau County Republican, January 21st
He worked with a group of retired Western Electric employees repairing tape players for the Talking Book Program. He enjoyed hunting, fishing and fixing anything that broke. He was skilled in photography, having his own darkroom since the early 1930s...Read more