AT&T Tech Channel

About this video

It's the dawn of the information age. So what role did Western Electric play in ushering it in? While some of the Bell System's advancements in technology laid the foundation for our current global network, the company also developed tangent technologies that were not adopted widely.

Main topics covered in this film:

  • Lightguide cable – lightguide was the name given to fiber optics + laser information transfer systems by Bell. These systems form the basis for our current speedy information network. At the time, one fiber could handle 672 conversations.
  • Microelectronics – Back in 1980, the Bell System was a pioneer in computer technologies. At this point the company had made fast, efficient computer chips. This part of the company was spun off in 1984.
  • Magnetic bubble memory – MBM was supposed to be the wave of the future. But it was surpassed in cheapness and storage size by flash memory a few years later.
  • The Dimension PBX business system – A telephone switchboard that still used computer programs on tape. Of course, surpassed today.
  • Designline phones – Instead of renting your phone from the phone company, you could buy them. AT&T marketed “designer” phones for a few years, ending in 1984. Between the Designline phones and the long history of rentals, Western Electric had made 320 million telephones in 100 years of business.
  • ESS switching – Electronic Switching Systems improved the telephone network's capacity and speed immensely.
  • Software – Bell's facility with software development, at the time, was based on work with the C language, invented at Bell Labs, later improved upon by C++.
  • Recycling – Western Electric had, since the 1930s, always been a leader in recycling components and materials. By 1980 the company was still the US' largest recycler of copper, even as the new lightguide cable was being developed to replace the old copper cables. And Western Electric reconditioned 30 million phones a year—more than twice what they manufactured at the time.

An Owen Murphy Production

Footage courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center, Warren, NJ

Release date: 09/26/2011

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