The Hawthorne Works manufactured this US Army field telephone (left) and portable switchboard during the First World War. These items are now on display at the Hawthorne Works Museum.
One hundred years ago this month, the nations of Europe stumbled into war. Each side thought its armies would win a glorious victory within months. But the Great War, as it would be known until surpassed by an even greater war, dragged on for four years. At its end, the old world was gone forever. Ancient monarchies collapsed, empires dissolved and millions of soldiers and civilians had perished, slain by frightening new weapons: machine guns, aerial bombing, tanks, and poison gas.
The US avoided the conflict until 1917, but once in, its industrial might and manpower shifted the course of the war, and Western Electric played an important role. The US Army Signal Corps called on the telephone maker to create, virtually from scratch, a battlefield communications system, everything from the wires and cables stitching it together, to the phones and switchboards sturdy enough to function under fire. Western Electric engineers devised, in three short months, the first air-to-air and air-to-ground radios for US fighter pilots. The Hawthorne Works, Western Electric’s sole manufacturing facility at that time, handled all the rush orders for military equipment. The workforce included 9,000 women who stepped in to take the place of men drafted into the service. Some Signal Corps units were made up entirely of Western Electric men. Thirty-one Hawthorne Works employees gave their lives.
In July 1918, the US government took control of AT&T and all its subsidiaries, including Western Electric, to oversee war production. AT&T executives had up to that time fought off efforts to break up or nationalize their enterprise. Many other nations had already done so. However, seven months after the war’s end, the Bell System was returned to private control.
Victory for the Allies in November 1918 brought independence to the homelands of many WE workers – Czechs, Poles, Hungarians and South Slavs. Postwar demand for telephone equipment doubled the Hawthorne workforce to nearly 40,000 by the end of the 1920s. Again in World War II, the US would call on Hawthorne to engineer and manufacture mass quantities of the most modern and capable communications equipment, an effort that dwarfed the output of 1917-18.