Western Electric

From Academic Kids

Western Electric (sometimes abbreviated WECo) was a US electrical engineering company, the manufacturing arm of the Bell Telephone Company from 1881 to 1984 . It was the scene of a number of technological innovations and also some seminal developments in industrial management.

In 1856, George Shawk, purchased an electrical engineering business in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1869, he became partners with Enos N. Barton and, later the same year, sold his share to inventor Elisha Gray. In 1872 Barton and Gray moved the business to Clinton Street, Chicago, Illinois and incorporated it as the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. They manufactured a variety of electrical products including typewriters, alarms and lighting and had a close relationship with the telegraph company Western Union to whom they supplied relays and other equipment.

In 1875, Gray sold his interests to Western Union, including the caveat that he had filed against Alexander Graham Bell's patent application for the telephone. The ensuing legal battle over patent rights, between Western Union and the Bell Telephone Company, ended in 1879 with the former company withdrawing from the telephone market and the latter acquiring Western Electric in 1881.

Western Electric Company was the first company to join in a Japanese joint venture with foreign capital. It invested in Nippon Electric Company, Ltd. in 1899, now known as NEC Corporation. Their representative in Japan was Walter Tenney Carleton.

From 1881, well into the 1970s, all telephones and telephone networks in the United States with the exception of a few areas, were owned directly or indirectly by American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), popularly known as Ma Bell. AT&T was composed of regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs), such as Pacific Telephone and Southwestern Bell. Other divisions of AT&T and parts of the Bell System included Bell Laboratories (Bell Labs), AT&T Long Lines and Western Electric, the manufacturing arm.

All telephones, all components of the public switched telephone network (PSTN), and all devices connected to the network were made by Western Electric and no other devices were allowed to be connected to the network.

Western Electric telephones were leased by subscribers and never sold, and so had to be repaired at no charge if they failed. This led Western Electric to pursue extreme reliability and durability in design. In particular, the work of Walter A. Shewhart, who developed new techniques for statistical quality control in the 1920s, helped lead to the legendary quality of manufacture of Western Electric telephones.

AT&T's only serious competitor in providing phone service was General Telephone and Electronics (GTE), which operated its own manufacturing arm, Automatic Electric.

In 1905 AT&T began construction of the Hawthorne Works on the outskirts of Chicago and which, by 1914 had absorbed all manufacturing work from Clinton Street and Western Electric's other plant in New York.

Western Electric came to an end on January 1, 1984 when the American Telephone and Telegraph Company was restructured following an antitrust lawsuit.

In addition to being a supplier for AT&T, Western Electric also played a major role in the development and production of professional sound recording and reproducing equipment, notably the Vitaphone system which brought sound to the movies, the Westrex optical sound that succeeded it, and the Westrex cutter and system for recording stereophonic sound in a single-groove gramophone record that was compatible with monophonic equipment.

Technological innovations

In 1928, Western Electric issued the first telephone with a single handset, having both the transmitter and receiver placed thereon (previous telephones had been of the "candlestick" type). This telephone was known as the "102" phone, and had a round base; it was succeeded in 1930 by the "202" phone, which was identical except for the shape of the base, which was oval.

The next significant upgrade came in 1937 with the introduction of the "302" phone. This telephone included the ringer within the telephone's housing; previous models (including the candlestick) had required a separate "bell box." The 302 had a square-shaped base, and was followed by the "500" phone; initially released in 1949 and modified in 1954, the Western Electric Model 500 Phone would become the most extensively-produced telephone model in the industry's history.

Later innovations included the Princess (http://www.bellsystemmemorial.com/telephones-princess.html) telephones of the 1950s and Trimline telephones of the 1960s, and the development of touch-tone dialing as a replacement for rotary dialing.

Management innovations

(other stuff to go in here)

The End of Western Electric

Western Electric came to an end in 1995 when AT&T spun WE off into Lucent Technologies. The equipment arm of Lucent would eventually be spun off into Avaya. Though Western Electric is no longer around in name, its remnants have survived with Avaya.


Since the demise of Western Electric, telephones and telephone equipment have been made by numerous manufacturers. As a result of increased competition, modern telephones are now less expensive than were Western Electric models.

Some people never purchased telephones after the AT&T breakup and continue to lease their existing Western Electric models from their RBOC. Such people have paid for their telephones ten or more times over.

Telephones still being leased by some subscribers (or that have been purchased from the telephone companies), made years ago by Western Electric, are superior to telephones commonly made today in aspects of durability and sound quality.


  • Adams, Stephen B., and Orville R. Butler. Manufacturing the Future: A History of Western Electric. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521651182.
  • Fagen, M. D., ed. A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Volume 1 The Early Years (1875-1925). New York: The [Bell Telephone] Laboratories, 1975. ISBN ?.
  • Fagen, M. D., ed. A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Volume 2 National Service in War and Peace (1925-1975). New York: The [Bell Telephone] Laboratories, 1978. ISBN 0932764002.

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