Western Electric

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 Grey’s 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. Bell’s new company, The American Bell Telephone Company, bought a controlling interest in them in 1881 and WE became Bell’s 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, didn’t 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 Electric’s 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 didn’t 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 parts.

It is also worth noting that WE was now concentrating on improving the mechanics of production, rather than innovation. A 1906 memo from AT&T’s 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.

Single 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 Australia’s 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 WE’s 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. Strowger’s 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.

In 1925 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 defence projects.

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 Australia’s 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 didn’t 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 exist.

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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