Western Electric was
the manufacturing and supply unit of the Bell Telephone System. For one hundred years—from 1882 to the breakup of the Bell System in 1984—Western Electric manufactured millions of telephones. But Western Electric did more than make telephones. It made billions of miles of wire and cable. And many millions of relays, key switches, lamps, jacks, and plugs. And electronic components too . . . vacuum-tubes, transistors, resistors, capacitors, inductors, and transformers. And what it did not make, Western Electric carefully specified and purchased from other companies.
All these items were assembled into both manual and dial switching offices. Large equipment frames using these components were wired at Western Electric factories and then assembled on-site at local and long-distance telephone offices. Other equipment was made and sent to small repeater stations on far-flung mountaintops and at the bottom of vast oceans.
The reliability of equipment made by Western Electric was—and still is—legendary. Many advances in electronics, metallurgy, chemistry, and manufacturing techniques were invented or refined by Bell Telephone Laboratories. These advances were used by Western Electric to design and manufacture telephones and related equipment to extraordinarily high standards. No telephone equipment anywhere in the world was as reliable . . . and none was as well designed as that made by Western Electric.
Consider this . . . Nearly every telephone made by Western Electric in the past one hundred years, if not physically damaged, still works today after cleaning and oiling the dial. And for the most part, these telephones are far more robust and reliable than any telephone you can buy today. They had to be . . . Before the breakup of the Bell System in 1984, the telephone company owned your telephone. You just leased it, one month at a time. It was far cheaper to build a more expensive telephone than to install a poor-quality telephone that might require frequent service. The same applied to every other piece of equipment made by Western Electric and used in the Bell System.
So how, exactly, did Western Electric begin? Well, let’s think back to the year 1869. Before telephones. Before electric lights. Before automobiles, electric streetcars, and refrigerators. In that year, Elisha Gray, Enos Barton, and Anson Stager formed a company called “Gray and Barton.” Gray was an inventive college professor (and competitor for the patent to the telephone--see The Telephone Patent Follies
in our Science wing). Barton was a former telegrapher. Stager was vice president of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Gray and Barton specialized in the manufacture and repair of telegraph equipment. This was an exciting field in the 1860s. The telegraph was the most exciting technology of the era. It allowed near-instant communication between two distant points nearly anywhere in the world. Newspapers depended on it, as did business and government agencies.
Within a few years, Gray and Barton’s business grew into a large company. In 1872, it was renamed the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. After the invention of the telephone in 1876, Western Electric was one of the few companies to make telephone equipment and sell it to the Bell System. But by 1882, the Bell Telephone Company realized that it needed to have consistent, reliable telephones. So Bell Telephone acquired a controlling interest in the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, and it shortened the company name to the Western Electric Company.
By 1906, Western Electric was the largest electrical manufacturer and distributor in the United States. And not just of telephones and related equipment . . . in fact, until 1925, Western Electric made heavy electrical equipment, power tools, and home appliances. Electric toasters, fans, irons, and even toys. We have some of these early Western Electric consumer products on display on the third floor of our museum.
In the early years, research and development of new technologies—including advances in electrical and electronic components—continued at both Western Electric and AT&T. This was an exciting time . . . remember that during the 1920s and 1930s, there was an explosion of electronics technology encouraged by the development of radio and “talking pictures.” The Bell System needed to better focus on the new electronics technologies. In 1934, all research and development activities in the Bell System were combined into one organization: The Bell Telephone Laboratories. As before, Western Electric continued to manufacture telephones, but now it also manufactured many new devices such as radio transmitters, microphones, and motion-picture sound recording equipment.
During WWII, Western Electric made millions of radios and other communications equipment for the armed forces. The manufacture of telephones for civilian use was stopped for the duration. After the war, the new developments continued at an even faster pace. By the late 1940s, the transistor was invented at Bell Labs and soon manufactured by Western Electric. Perhaps no other invention so quickly and profoundly changed modern electronics technology as the transistor.
New and improved telephones soon appeared. A few years after that, all-electronic switching offices were developed to replace the old step, panel, and crossbar offices. However, much of the old switching equipment remained in use until the 1980s. In some telephone offices, Western Electric telephone equipment remained in service for over fifty years!
By the 1960s, Western Electric was manufacturing advanced materials such as lasers, fiber-optic cable, and integrated circuits. These devices permitted more efficient use of the Bell Telephone network and eventually reduced the cost of long-distance telephone service. They also led to the development of digital computers, satellite communications, and cellular telephones.
The demand for telephone service increased tremendously during the 1950s and 1960s. To meet this demand, Western Electric built additional factories throughout the United States and in several other countries. In the Seattle area, Western Electric built a large facility in Kent. At its peak, the Kent facility employed over 1000 people. This facility repaired telephones and telephone equipment for the entire state of Washington and northern Idaho. It also stocked tools and parts—any and all things necessary to repair and maintain not just your telephone, but every piece of equipment in this two-state area.
On display here are tools used by Western Electric installers. Also here are photographs and paperwork related to Western Electric, with special emphasis on operations in the Seattle area.
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