I’m David Veech and this is Elevate Your Performance.
We’ve been looking at the historical progression from craft manufacturing to mass manufacturing and ultimately to lean manufacturing, and drawing connections to a variety of technology – and demand – issues that forced so many of these decisions.
Last time, we discussed the telegraph and the birth of Western Union. Today, I want to share some discoveries about the telephone and the founding and growth of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Within that story, we want to discover the birth and contributions of Bell Labs for research and development of new technologies, and Western Electric for the manufacturing of those new products and innovation in manufacturing processes.
Western Electric grew from a small shop in Cleveland, first acquired in 1856 by George Shawk to produce telegraph parts. He partnered with Enos Barton, then sold his own shares to Elisha Gray around 1870. Elisha Gray was working on a technology to transmit voices over telegraph wires. Gray and Barton moved the business to Chicago in 1872 and incorporated under the name of Western Electric Manufacturing Company.
Alexander Graham Bell gets credit for inventing the telephone, making it work in 1876 with the now famous line “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” This was three days after his patent was issued on March 7, 1876 despite a caveat being filed in the Patent Office by Elisha Gray in 1875, the same year Gray sold his rights to Western Electric to Western Union.
During the summer of 1876, Bell and Watson demonstrated the telephone to the rest of the world at the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia, alongside dozens of inventions that demonstrated the value of mass production.
Bell’s work had been funded by Thomas Sanders and Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the fathers of two pupils from his School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston, where he taught deaf and mute children how to communicate. Incidentally, one of his other students in 1872 was Helen Keller.
After Western Union refused to accept their offer to sell the telephone patent for $100,000, Sanders, Hubbard, and Bell incorporated the Bell Telephone Company in 1877. In 1881, Bell Telephone Company acquired Western Electric and by 1886, over 150,000 telephones were in service.
As with every other invention of this magnitude, there were hundreds of claims contesting Bell’s patent, many from Western Union. None was able to withstand the evidence and vigor brought by Bell Telephone, however, so the company continued to grow.
As lines expanded across the country, Bell’s management formed a new company to handle long distance, naming the company the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1885. In 1899, in response to restrictive laws, the assets of Bell’s companies were consolidated under the AT&T banner, creating a monopoly called Bell System, affectionately known as Ma Bell.
In 1905, they opened a new manufacturing facility in Cicero, Illinois and named it after the original name of the town – Hawthorne. The Hawthorne Works became one of the largest single-site employers in the country, with over 45,000 employees at its heyday. It also hosted dozens, if not hundreds of innovative studies in manufacturing processes and socio-technical systems, including the studies surrounding the famed Hawthorne Effect, which we’ll get to a little later.
More to follow! I hope you stay with me as I try to keep up with these. If you’d like to know more about how I use these history lessons to make practical improvements in today’s technology driven companies, book a call with me and let’s have a chat. I’d be happy to hear about some of the problems you’re experiencing and how we might work together toward effective solutions.
Have a great day and I’ll see you tomorrow.