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“Manufacturing the Future: A History of Western Electric,” by Stephen B. Adams and Orville R. Butler, Cambridge University Press, NY, 1999. This 270-page hardback tells the story of Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of the Bell Telephone system, later spun off as Lucent and now Alcatel-Lucent. Western Electric traces its beginnings to Gray & Barton, founded in 1869 to improve and manufacture telegraphic apparatus for Western Union. Samuel FB Morse sent his famous telegram from Washington, DC to Baltimore in 1844. Commercial interests promptly built telegraph lines soon reaching major cities. Western Union was founded as the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company in 1851, changing its name to Western Union in 1856. Consolidation soon resulted in a company able to build a transcontinental telegraph line in 1861. By 1866, Western Union controlled 90% of the nation's telegraph lines.

The telegraph proved essential in the conduct of the Civil War and gained prestige when telegraphers were exempted from the draft. Telegraphers learned the code, but they also needed mechanical and electrical skills. Many, like Thomas Edison, tinkered with improvements. When consolidation reduced opportunities for promotion, some went to electrical shops that specialized in equipment manufacture. Thomas Edison moved to Boston to work for Charles William, Jr., an early manufacturer of fire-alarm telegraphs. Gray & Barton was a similar firm, which came together in Cleveland, OH around Oberlin College's School of Telegraphy. Inventor, Elisha Gray, best known for his conflict with Alexander Graham Bell claiming invention of the telephone, was an early participant. In 1872, Gray & Barton, now in Chicago, adopted the name Western Electric as in independent manufacturer, one third owned by Western Union.

By 1873, Gray had invented the printing telegraph machine. On that basis, Western Electric had the opportunity to manufacture C. Latham Sholes' and Carlos Glidden's typewriter, but ultimately Remington of New York with idle capacity from the production of rifles for the Franco-Prussian War got the contract. Western Electric was paid a royalty for its improvements, but Remington got the right to sell additional typewriters.

Gray's work on the telephone grew out of interest in the multiplexing telegraph which used musical tones to send multiple messages down a single wire. After Bell's telephone was demonstrated at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876, Western Union created The American Speaking Telephone Co., and hired inventors like Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to work around Bell patents. That resulted in the famous patent infringement lawsuit in 1878. Behind the 1879 settlement was Jay Gould, who founded American Union Telegraph Co., and threatened an alliance with Bell. In the settlement, Bell agreed to transfer all telegraph messages to Western Union, and to leave the transmission of business messages, market quotes, and news to Western Union.

To Western Electric, the telephone was a major new business opportunity now blocked by the settlement. However, Bell found itself unable to secure sufficient supplies of telephones. An opportunity presented itself when Bell contracted with ET Gilliand Co., to manufacture. Western Electric was able to acquire an interest in the company in 1881. When Jay Gould acquired Western Union in 1881, Western Union sold its interest in Western Electric to Bell. In 1882, Western Electric became Bells exclusive supplier of telephones. From that day forward, Western Electric urged the Bell operating companies to standardize their operations so Western could manufacture more efficiently. Integration into the Bell system proceeded slowly. Meanwhile the company was an early manufacturer of electrical generation machinery, electric lights, and computing machines. Western Electric saw itself as a supplier of electrical equipment, and General Electric and Westinghouse were bench mark companies.

The first x-ray experiment in the US was performed at Western Electric in 1896. In the 1880s, elevator annunciators used to indicate floor numbers were adapted to create displays for Keno games in Leadville, CO, but manufacture of gambling equipment was soon abandoned. Equipment was also developed for the military including range finders and signaling devices. Early punched card systems of the Hollerith design were used to speed computation of the 1890 Census. Pratt & Whitney manufactured the key punches; Western Electric the card readers. The first tabulating equipment was built for the insurance industry in 1891; for the railroads in the 1890s. Hollerith offered his technology to Western Electric, but in 1896 founded Tabulating Machine Company, which eventually became IBM.

The expiration of key Bell patents in 1894 presented the possibility of increased competition. Theodore Vale, general manager of AT&T saw long distance telephone service as a defense against competitors. Several of Robert Millikan's (University of Chicago's) best physics students were hired for Western Electric's Engineering Office in New York. They learned of Lee Deforest's audion vacuum tube in 1912. Millikan's student Harold Arnold developed a practical amplifier in a circuit known as the high vacuum tube in 1913. AT&T licensed the Deforest patent. Transcontinental long distance using the amplifier was installed in June, 1914, and tested on July 29. The amplifier was the basis of numerous additional inventions including loud speakers and talking movies.

Early on Western Electric became interested in management based on scientific research. Walter Dietz at Western was a pioneer in the field. He and others founded what became the American Management Association in 1913. Western Electric's Hawthorne Plant opened in 1904, in Cicero, IL. It was the site of famous management studies. Women who assembled relays were studied to determine what environmental factors increased productivity. In the end it was concluded that the improvements observed were due to increased attention. This became known as the Hawthorne Effect. In 1909, the power generation business was sold to General Electric.

In 1909, AT&T acquired control of Western Union, but that raised fears of antitrust. In 1913, the company agreed to sell Western Union, and to allow independent phone companies to connect with the long distance network.

In 1915, disaster struck when the Eastland, a steamship loaded with employees and their families sank in the Chicago River while taking employees to a company picnic in Michigan City, IN. Nearly 900 people died.

During World War I, Western Electric applied its skill to military problems. In 1915, the British learned that the Germans were using a “valve detector” (apparently a vacuum tube amplifier) to listen in on front line communications. Western Electric developed a “sound barrage” device to counter the detector. A “mining detector” was also developed to listen for the enemy digging tunnels under defensive positions in the era of trench warfare. The “Nash Fish” was developed using underwater hydrophones to detect u-boats.

Radio became an important technology after World War I. Both GE and Western had vacuum tube technology. In July, 1920, GE formed RCA as a sales agency for radio equipment. AT&T and GE cross licensed their vacuum tube technology. Meanwhile, AT&T worried that NBC's radio network could become a competitor in long distance. They agreed to sell stations and radio technology to RCA in return for an agreement to use the AT&T network to distribute programming.

Loud speakers became yet another use for vacuum tube amplifiers. One of the first systems was used at Warren G. Harding's inaugural address in 1921. Bell Telephone Laboratories was founded in 1925. In 1924, Western Electric's talking movie system came to market. Vitaphone Corporation was formed to market the technology; Warner Brothers was the first customer. The original movie was Don Juan. The company proved more successful at providing sound equipment for movie theaters. The business was abandoned in 1937, but Western continued supplying film studios until an antitrust settlement in 1956 forced discontinuation.

Western Electric manufactured a wide range of equipment during World War II. Western was the leading producer of radar equipment, but radio telephone systems and other electronics were supplied in quantity. After World War II, Western Electric was called on to rebuild the telephone system in Japan. This was accomplished working with NEC. Later, Bell Labs and Western jointly took over management of Sandia Laboratories; Western contracted to build the Dew line radar system.

The development of the transistor and the resulting transition from electromechanical to electronics manufacturing necessitated major changes at Western Electric. The result was numerous plant closings in the 1970s. Technology also changed in transmission systems. Before 1900, steel wire had been used. That transitioned to copper wire; coaxial cable and microwave radio were common in AT&T Long Lines by the end of World War II. Millimeter wave guides were investigated in the 60s, but fiber optics soon proved more practical.

Electronic switching, initially analog, and later digital were a major transition. Western's first analog electronic switch was installed in 1965. By 1982, numerous competitors came on the scene. Western held its own with improved software that made customization easier. The court decision causing AT&T to spin off the Baby Bells and Western Electric was announced in 1982. AT&T was given two years to implement the changes. The Western Electric name came to an end in 1984. Parts of Western were distributed throughout AT&T and the Baby Bells, but much of Western Electric became Network Systems. The book ends soon after the spin off of Lucent in the 1990s, while Lucent stock is still soaring.

This book is a reasonable summary of a major company. It is a bit disappointing in that its description of major technology achievements is cursory at best. Still a detailed book might have been huge. An Appendix lists names of chief executives, and gives sales figures. References. Bibliography. Photographs. Index.
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