Western Electric was the manufacturing arm of the
Bell group of companies from the late 1800s to its demise in 1984. In that time
it held patents over many of the major developments in telephony. The history
of the Western Electric phones is something of a history of the telephone itself.
When Bell patented his telephone, he looked for someone to make the
intruments for him. He settled on the firm of Charles Williams in Boston, where
his assistant Thomas A Watson had received his training. The Williams coffin
phones were aptly named - a plain wooden box with bits bolted on. We will leave
out the resulting court battles, patent infringements, and general mudslinging
that followed for years over who invented the phone - in the end, Bell won. He
finished with a collection of patents covering Edison's and Greys receiver,
three different transmitters of his own design, and the Blake transmitter - all
the ingredients to build a working phone from. With the legal part mostly out
of the way, he was free to concentrate on the marketing of the new invention.
He did this successfully, and Williams was unable to keep up the supply of phones.
Bell contracted other makers as well, but they were also unable to keep up the
supply as the new industry grew.
One of the protagonists in the patents
case was Western Union, the telegraph firm. They had bought into an electrical
firm, Grey and Barton, to make telephones and telegraph equipment for them. (The
company was also making some phones for Bell). Grey and Barton was founded in
Cleveland, Ohio, in 1869 as an electric-equipment shop. It was then owned by George
Shawk and Enos Barton and made telegraph equipment. Elisha Grey, a prolific inventor,
was impressed by the firm's quality of manufacture and bought out Shawk's share
of the company. The firm was renamed the Western Electric Manufacturing Company
in 1872 when Western Union contracted them to build its telephones. When Western
Union realised they would lose the patent battle with Bell, they surrendered their
patents to him. This left Western Electric without a buyer for most of their products.
Bells new company, The American Bell Telephone Company, bought a controlling
interest in them in 1881 and WE became Bells sole supplier of telephones.
They sold their phones exclusively to American Bell (who became AT&T in 1899).
Bell then leased the phones to their regional operating companies, who in turn
leased them to subscribers.
WE started building the first of the three-box
phones in 1882. These were large (up to a metre high) wall phones with a generator
box on top, a Blake transmitter in a central box, and a battery box at the base.
The size was made necessary by the inefficient magnets used in the generators,
and the large Blake transmitters and wet cell batteries in use. Style was unimportant,
although the attractive wood grains and the glossy nickel finish on the metal
parts looked considerably better than the Williams phones. Handsets had not been
invented at this stage, as the transmitters available were too big.
The Blake transmitter was sensitive, but was neither efficient, nor cheap. It
had one big advantage, though. At a time when Bell was desperately trying to raise
money to expand the telephone service and protect his patents in Courts around
the world, the Blake was offered to him in exchange for shares in his company
rather than an outright cash payment. Emile Berliner refined the Blake into a
useful, reliable transmitter. Smaller transmitters filled with carbon granules
in the form of coal dust existed, but these suffered from packing
- the carbon grains settled to the bottom of the transmitter and its efficiency
fell. The Blake, being a single-contact transmitter, didnt have this problem.
The main example of the coal dust transmitter was the British Hunnings. It had
been invented in 1878 by Henry Hunnings, but was not brought into use until 1880
in the Type 21 two box wall phone. Its smaller size and the development of smaller,
more efficient magnets allowed two box phones to be built. They were still boxy
and plain, though. The Hunnings was small enough to be mounted inside the case,
making the phone somewhat shorter. The transmitter was designed to reduce packing
by rotating the transmitter occasionally if packing occurred. The single and twin-box
phones still had a separate receiver hanging from the side. Desk phones with handsets
were still out of the question although some attempts had been made to use the
top box of a wall phone and attach it to a base so it could be used on a desk.
In 1885 when WE produced its first CB wall phone in the U.S., its only concession
to style was its fiddleback backboard.
The Hunnings went through
two improvements. The first appears to have come from Britain, where they substituted
carefully graded coal granules for the coal dust. This greatly improved the Hunnings.
It became known as the Delville transmitter. A similar non-WE version was known
as the Manchester Shot transmitter. This was a further modification that used
rounded coal granules, but the performance was not significantly better and the
cost was higher so it eventually fell into disuse. The second improvement was
the Deckert modification. This consisted of machining the backplate with a series
of crisscrossing grooves to produce rows of cones. Each cone was topped with a
tuft of silk, which damped the diaphragm slightly and helped to hold the granules
in place. The resulting transmitter, the HunningsCone Deckert, just about did
away with the packing problem altogether.
The Bell Telephone
Manufacturing Company (soon to become Western Electric) opened a factory in Belgium
in 1882. Here they were somewhat surprised to find that L M Ericsson, Siemens
and others had practical, attractive and efficient wall and desk phones, and were
developing a handset as well. The European phones had a more stylish design than
the bigger, boxy American phones. The WE engineers in Belgium, Britain and France
soon redesigned their phones to closer approximate the European styles. The cases
became smaller and a little more ornate. A handset was introduced. Advances in
transmitters such as the White Solid Back and the Delville were introduced. These
changes did not make it back to the United States for some time, if at all.
The White Solid Back transmitter was a major step forward in that it did
away with the packing problem completely. This had two immediate effects. The
transmitter on a wall phone could be mounted on a gooseneck instead
of being recessed into the top box. This made it more accessible to the caller.
The second effect was the introduction in 1895 of a new style of phone - the candlestick.
By mounting the bells, coil etc in a separate box, a compact desk phone could
now be produced. The first candlestick was rather primitive, with most working
parts mounted outside the stand. It was known as the "Potbelly" because
of its awkward shape. Refinements and improvements followed, and in 1899 a slimmer
version, the No. 10, was released. Much of the perch mechanism was still outside
the tube, so in 1904 the revised Model 20B candlestick was released. This put
all the mechanism inside the tube. A slightly improved model, the No. 20AL, was
released in 1905. It was designed for mass production and proved to be reliable
and popular, apart from some complaints about its weight when hand held. This
was the familiar CB model used until the 1950s.
Even with smaller transmitters
available, handsets were only used experimentally in the U.S. from 1904 to 1907.
Production was stopped by John J Carty, Western Electrics Chief Engineer.
There are grave reasons, he said ,why we should avoid
taking the slightest step which might precipitate a general demand for French
handsets. Apparently these reasons only applied to Western Electric
- in Europe handsets had taken over. They were more expensive to make, didn't
work so well over long distances, and carbon granules could still pack down and
reduce transmission, and there were sidetone problems, but the gravest reasons were probably that Carty didnt
like them, and the company simply didn't have the money to develop them. . So the shape of WE telephones was set for years to come. WE did not
produce a commercial handset phone until the bakelite days in 1927. In spite of
Carty, other firms like Kellogg saw few problems with the handset. They produced
their first handset phone in 1902 , the Grab A Phone. It was based on Ericsson
It is also worth noting that WE was now concentrating on improving
the mechanics of production, rather than innovation. A 1906 memo from AT&Ts
Chief Engineer notes that Every effort in the Department is being executed
towards perfecting the engineering methods. Noone is employed who, as an inventor,
is capable of originating new apparatus of novel design. In consequence of this
it will be necessary in many cases to depend on the acquisition of inventions
of outside men. This memo marks what became WE's unofficial policy
for decades to come - quality of design and engineering, so the efficiencies of
mass production could be realised. Unfortunately, that did not leave much room
for style. It did, however, start Carty on the process of gradually assembling
a team of scientists to carry out research for WE rather than rely on outside
inventors. Carty's engineering department started a new "research branch"
that later became Bell Laboratories, one of the world's greatest research organisations.
Although the candlestick phones were somewhat more stylish, the wall phones
stayed boxy and plain. Other companies produced more decorative phones, but WE
was firmly dedicated to the mass production of cheap, dependable phones.
box wall phones had been in production by WE in Europe since the 1880s but it
was only in 1907 that WE in the U.S. felt the parts were small enough to build
a U.S. magneto phone into a single box. Their Model 317 wall phone featured a
decorative style called a Cathedral Top. This was a rounded top on the backboard
where the lightning arrestors and terminals were mounted. It also had a Picture
Frame Front, a grand title for a rectangle routed into the front panel. These
decorative touches were minimal, but to their credit WE made the boxes from waxed
oak or polished walnut, with gloss or frosted nickelled metal fittings. A restored
phone of this period is a handsome thing in spite of its plain style.
Mass production was critical in the fast growing markets, however, and by 1909
the Cathedral Top was dispensed with. By 1911 the PFF had disappeared. By 1917
the bells and fittings were just painted black. In the final model, a short stamped
steel bracket and bakelite bulldog transmitter, so called because
of its flattened appearance, replaced the gooseneck transmitter. The writing slope
was given a steeper angle to compensate.
In 1913 a compact CB wall phone,
similar in size to Australias 37AW, was introduced for CB use. By packing
a newer model condenser and coil into the box, a useable compact phone could be
cheaply produced in wood or steel. Most builders followed the WE styles, and there
is little to distinguish one make from another. Every manufacturer had the same
problem - to cut costs and increase production. Some conversions were made to
earlier phones, mainly to keep skilled staff working during the Depression. One
such conversion was the Model AA1, a cutdown candlestick base converted by adding
a cradle and one of the first bakelite handsets.
WE had been reluctant
to move into automatic telephony, as all the available funds had been used to
expand the network and carry the firm through the First World War. They had also been investing heavily in wireless and moving pictures. By 1919 they
were ready to gointo automatic switching, and released their first dial phone. This was the 51AL
candlestick. The shaft was moved off-centre to allow a dial to be recessed into
the base. It was issued with the new bulldog mouthpiece. This transmitter
was used for maintenance of older models as well, and collectors will find many
phones sporting a bulldog transmitter on an older frame (and not just on WE phones).
This was WEs first dedicated auto phone. They had developed a system
they bought from the Lorimer brothers and which they called the Rotary system at the turn of the century, but it lacked refinement. They had to come to grips with automatic phones in a serious
way. Strowgers automatic exchange system had been around since the 1890s
and was already in wide use. It needed little work to make it reliable and efficient.
WE finally started development after World War 1, pressured by the growth in phone
use. Manual exchanges were simply not going to carry the load. In the end, AT&T's first automatic switch was a step-by-step switch made by Automatic Electric, not by WE. It went into service in 1919, but WE continued to develop and improve the equipment. They also met the demand for many years by producing AE equipment under license. They developed two versions of the Lorimer system, the Panel system for the U.S., and the Rotary system for Europe. Both were fairly successful and competed with the Automatic Electric step-by-step system.
the Bell Telephone Company, now AT&T, was under pressure from the United States government to reduce their market power. With the telephone firmly established, other firms wanted a larger piece of the action. The other companies wanted interconnection with AT&T's network and access to some of AT&T's markets. AT&T could probably have held out, but they reached an agreement with the government over the major points. As part of the agreement Western Electric divested themselves
of their overseas holdings. This gave the parent companies a much-needed funds
injection to modernise their range. The first steel box automatic wall phones
appeared in the mid-1930s, mainly as a short-term measure until bakelite phones
could be produced in numbers. In 1927 the Model 200 phone appeared. This was a
compact desk phone, metal cased, with a bakelite handset. The handset was rather
ugly and lumpy to house the transmitter. The first models had a round base, but
in 1930 this was redesigned to an oval base to better complement the handset.
The slim shape was achieved by mounting the coil and condenser in a separate box,
as for the candlestick. This was a necessary but undesirable problem. It would have been preferable to put all the
parts inside the telephone body. This would cut costs and simplify installation.
In 1937 the No. 302 desk phone was released, a style that would be followed worldwide.
The case was still cast in metal, but it was changed to bakelite during World
War 2. After the war it was produced in an early thermoplastic. At first it was
available only in black. A small number of painted models was available, but chipping
of the paint meant they soon looked unattractive. With the use of thermoplastics
it became possible to introduce some colours - ten in all. The coloured models
are now rare.
During the Second World War telephone development was put
on hold as the company swung over to war work - radar comprised fifty percent
of the firm's output by the end of the war. WE now had a new major customer -
the U.S. Government.
A post-World War 2 redesign culminated in 1949 in
the classic Model 500, still only in black. It was not until 1954 that colours
became available. In 1954 Frederick Kappell took over AT&T (the Bell main
company) and started to modernise the company and improve its public image. The
most visible move was to get WE to make the phones available in many more colours,
an idea first proposed in 1928.
In spite of being WE's major customer, the
U.S. Government was also turning into WE's major enemy. The Justice Department
once again became hostile to the exclusive supplier deal between AT&T and WE. Post-war
development was putting pressure on AT&T to supply services, and it was having
trouble meeting this demand. Its public image was suffering badly and the Government
exploited this. It put pressure on AT&T to split off WE, and allow competition
in the supply process. It was necessary for AT&T to point out to the Government
that WE was currently doing vital defence work for the Government pretty much
at cost (the missile program was only one example) and this work would have to
be abandoned if the profit from telephones was cut. A consent decree was arrived
at that allowed other companies access to Bell Labs' patents and WE's phone designs.
AT&T was to divest itself of all its non-telephone work - except, of course, national
New models appeared. The wall phone got a new shape and
was released in colours. In 1959 the Princess phone was released - a compact lightweight
model intended as a second phone. In 1963 the first TouchTone (pushbutton) phones
were released. 1965 saw the Trimline (similar to Telecom Australias Gondola)
released. The first Telephone Shop was opened to market the new styles. By 1987
there were 450 of them.
This was not enough. Under pressure from a government
that did not like monopolies, no matter how well they did their job, another antitrust
suit was started against AT&T. One of the major objections was that AT&T
still sourced their phones only from WE at higher prices, not allowing other manufacturers
and importers a chance to compete. The higher charges for WE phones eventually
made their way back to AT&T as hidden profits. AT&T responded that any
change would mean the loss of manufacturing jobs from the U.S.A. to southeast
Asia. They were right, but it didnt matter. Political philosophy overruled
common sense. Judge Green ruled against AT&T and ordered their breakup. On
January 1, 1984, the Bell network was split up and Western Electric ceased to
Part of its work continued as AT&T Technologies, but telephones
were now a small part of its work. In the face of cheaper imports, most manufacturing
was moved overseas. So was much of the technical development. The company once
again went international, and the loss of jobs to the United States was measured
in the thousands. United States telcos are now in the ridiculous position that
they must import much of their technology, and a once almost universal system is now fragmented into smaller markets where each company is out to carve out its own market niche . In some states the number of connected customers has actually fallen in some years, and in others a subsidy scheme has been introduced to help people keep their phones connected. And this is progress?
Western Electric telephones
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