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During its early years, Western Electric manufactured numerous technological developments and industrial innovations. The company was founded in 1869 by Elisha Gray and Enos Barton, as Gray and Barton, producing electric parts for various companies. The company was renamed Western Electric Company, and soon after, Gray sold his shares to Western Union in 1875, leaving behind his fight against Alexander Graham Bell for the telephone patent.
From the early 1880s to the late 1970s, most telephone networks were owned by American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). All of the electric components for AT&T were designed and built by Western Electric, and AT&T did not allow any other type of device to be connected to their network. Western Electric merged with AT&T in 1899, and in 1925 Western Electric was renamed Bell Labs, a world-famous research laboratory.
Bell Labs soon became an early leader in global manufacturing. It developed breakthrough technologies in typewriters, vacuum tubes, radio, television, motion pictures, radar, and transistors. It is now evident that Bell had invented much of the technology that made the 20th century work.
Transcontinental telephone line
During its formative years, Western Electric put forth a superhuman effort to provide AT&T with transcontinental telephone* service in 1914. Up to that point, the major breakthrough in long-distance telephone had been the introduction of loading coils, which reduced the tendency of a signal to grow weaker the longer the line over which it was transmitted.
Dr. Lee DeForest had just the plan of attack for Western Electric. In 1912, DeForest, "the father of radio" and owner of DeForest Radio Telephone Company, developed the audion, a three-element vacuum tube that could not only send radio waves more effectively, but amplify them as well.
Western Electric`s Dr. Harold Arnold, who possessed the expertise in electron physics DeForest lacked, quickly grasped scientifically how the audion worked. The result was development of a high-vacuum tube for amplifying sound in telephone cables in April 1913. AT&T quickly purchased the audion patent from DeForest — allowing Western Electric to span the continent in 1914.
The technological breakthrough of the vacuum tube exerted a wide-ranging impact, revolutionizing communications. It would eventually lead to the creation of new industries, including radio, television, and sound motion pictures.
Western Electric`s efforts towards long-distance calling, as well as speaker sound, ultimately transformed the face of many industries.
The Hawthorne plant
Enos Barton, Western Electric`s founder, was still president of the company in 1905. He was responsible for moving the company`s main manufacturing plant that year, from downtown Chicago to a rural setting on the outskirts of the city.
The Hawthorne plant became a virtually self-sufficient city with a power plant, hospital, fire brigade, laundry, greenhouse, a brass band, and an annual beauty pageant.
By 1914, the Hawthorne facility was Western Electric`s sole production establishment, causing plants in New York and Chicago to close their doors. Over the following 70 years, the Hawthorne works, including more than 100 buildings, would produce telephones, cable and every major telephone switching system, including the equipment necessary to make it work.
The Great Depression and World War II
The Great Depression harshly affected nearly every aspect of the American economy, and Western Electric was no exception. The company`s revenue fell from a high of $411 million in 1929 to less than $70 million in 1933. The Hawthorne plant`s employment fell from 43,000 workers in 1930 to about 6,000 by 1933. The company, like the federal government, resorted to a "Make Work Program."**
The company then received a break. At the outbreak of World War II, equipment for overseas use became a high priority. New telephone centers sprang up in sparsely populated areas all over the world, to keep up with the needs of American military installations. Western Electric manufactured cable and wire, switchboards and other equipment to meet Lend-Lease commitments in various foreign countries.
The company also produced specialized communications equipment to observe the enemy in a new way, most notably in the area of radio detection and ranging (RADAR).
The conclusion of World War II was not the end of Western Electric`s efforts in national security. Beginning in 1945, the company produced Cold War communications systems, while continuing to meet consumer demand.
Western Electric would provide the U.S. military with plenty of support, such as: the Nike guided missile program and the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line)3, both beginning in 1950; computer-assisted air defense centers in 1958, and the emergency installation of switchboards and long-distance channels in Florida during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Innovations in science and the humanities
Western Electric was behind groundbreaking innovations in manufacturing in the field of statistical process control. They eventually began to export those methods to Japan to give birth to the modern Total Quality movement.
Studies from 1924 to 1933 at the Hawthorne Plant sparked the development of a resource in the field of industrial psychology. In the 1960s, Western Electric began to emerge as a leading corporate advocate of civil rights and Affirmative Action. Someone had to "step up to the plate," and Western Electric did, by providing a commitment to universal service and good public relations.
Prior to joining the Bell System a century ago, Western Electric was the largest electrical manufacturer in the United States. Lucent Technologies is currently the latest successor to Western Electric, manufacturing for both AT&T and the regional telephone companies. Lucent Technologies now travels paths in international markets once covered by Western Electric.
**The company paid its employees to make "articles in general demand" from furniture to cigarette lighters to keep them employed, then it distributed the goods at cost through the company stores.
3. A 3000-mile system of radar outposts across the Arctic to detect approaching bombers.
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Chicago, Saturday, July 24, 1915: Over two thousand Western Electric employees and their families, dressed in their finest, arrive early at the riverf...