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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Recent News: Western Electric Telephones
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Evelyn I. (Guyette) Rand, 95, Western Electric WorkerWHAV News, October 31st
Educated in the Haverhill school system, Rand graduated from Haverhill High School, class of 1937, and until her retirement in 1981 was employed at the former Western Electric. Rand loved taking care of her home and she, along with her late husband, ...Read more
Okla. electric cooperative shareholders petition to rid of trusteesKXII-TV, October 30th
"They buy their electric from Western Electric Co-op, even though Western Electric prices were cheaper in 2012, they actually raised our rates to cover Mr. Matlock's $2 million gift and the doubling of their salaries," Hammons said. "That's the whole...Read more
Glory daysThe Harvell gazette, October 30th
Boucher ended up getting a job at Western Electric, where he worked his way up the management ladder before retiring in 1982. Sixty-six years have passed since ... The younger Boucher retired earlier this year. "The teachers at his school held a big...Read more
65th AnniversaryThe Cass County Democrat, October 29th
This year they will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary and they're still going strong! They were both born and raised in Harrisonville and moved to Lee's Summit in June of 1953. They have lived there ever since. Dixie worked at the Western...Read more
Claire A. (Tremblay) Migliori Simmons, 83WHAV News, October 27th
11, 1930 in Haverhill, William Tremblay of Champlain, N.Y. and Rose (Bedard) Tremblay of Littleton, N.H. She attended Haverhill parochial and public schools and worked her entire career as a process checker at Western Electric/AT&T, where she retired...Read more
The Eastland Disaster Killed More People Than the Titanic and the Lusitania ...Smithsonian, October 27th
The Eastland was one of five vessels chartered to carry Western Electric workers and their families on a day-long outing from downtown Chicago to a park 38 miles across Lake Michigan to the southeast. ... Anna Quinn, 22, and her neighbor and fellow...Read more
Part 2: WHAV's Historic and Rocky Road to FMWHAV News, October 26th
It consisted of an announcer's chair, a desk with a Western Electric console and two self-contained professional turntables on each side of the console. In front of the temporary control board was a large table seating ... Conventional radio networks...Read more
Sylvia (Britton) Muldowney, 79, Western Electric WorkerWHAV News, October 22nd
Muldowney was employed at the former Western Electric and retired from Lucent Technologies in North Andover after 20 years. In addition to her career she also was a full time homemaker, mother, grandmother and great grandmother. An avid sports fan, she ...Read more