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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The Tile & Conduit Works was founded in Aultman in the 1880s to produce clay conduit blocks for underground telephone lines. Aultman initially was occupied mostly by German immigrants who worked there. The company eventually was purchased by ...Read more
Apple Retreats to the SuburbsBloomberg, November 29th
In 1900, Western Electric Co., AT&T Corp.'s manufacturing subsidiary, constructed a 13-story laboratory in downtown New York; it became the headquarters of a new independent AT&T unit, Bell Telephone Laboratories Inc., in 1925. New York's concentration ...Read more
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By 1877, Edison was involved in the telephone and thinking about what would eventually become the phonograph; he abandoned the project, assigning the rights to Western Electric Manufacturing Co. Edison received pen royalties into the early 1880s...Read more
Plattsmouth man publishes E-bookFremont Tribune, November 19th
Mumford started his employment at the old Western Electric Plant in Omaha. In 1991, he was at AT & T “They purchased our plant in '05, and by '06, they had shut down our large cable manufacturing building and transferred the work to North Carolina...Read more
Tone dialing telephones are introduced, November 18, 1963EDN.com (blog), November 18th
On this day in tech history, the Bell System introduced the first electronic push-button telephone system with touch-tone dialing to customers in Pennsylvania. Using dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) technology provided "touch-tone" service that would ...Read more
Carl Zehner, 89Coeur d'Alene Press, November 13th
His family always came first and he will be greatly missed. Carl retired from Western Electric (Bell System) after 35 years of service. He was an installer, eventually working his way into an Engineering position. Carl and his late wife, Virginia were...Read more
First telephone calls in Bloomington made in 1877Bloomington Pantagraph, November 10th
BLOOMINGTON — In early December 1877, W.A. Stent, an agent of Bell Telephone Co. of New York and Western Electric Co. of Chicago, demonstrated to local residents a method of communication that would — in a few decades time — utterly remake their...Read more
Owners prepping Western Electric site for other developersBurlington Times News, November 8th
The Alabama company that recently purchased the former Western Electric plant in east Burlington plans to demolish some of the buildings and ready the site for developers, though Saucier Inc. itself won't be developing the property. Saucier, located in ...Read more