Behold the Western Electric 500

There’s much to love about the Western Electric 500 telephone. It’s easily serviceable and built like a tank. Why? When it was manufactured you didn’t own your phone, the telephone company leased it to you. This relationship served as a powerful incentive to manufacture a device that would last. In the 90s I went through three or four cheap cordless phones that broke after a few months of service. I switched back to an old touch tone phone (a Western Electric 2500) that has served us well and doesn’t put out potentially cancer causing radio frequency waves like cordless and cell phones do. My WE500, a thrift store purchase, sat around for years until I decided to fix a wiring flaw that silenced its bells.

The WE 500 should be the poster child for Mr. Jalopy’s Owner’s Manifesto as it adheres to all the tenets:  The case is easy to open, all connections are labeled and subassemblies dissemble with ease. Virtually all repairs can be done with a screwdriver. And phone companies, to this day, stick to backwards compatibility–you can still use a dial phone to make a call. Someone send a memo to Microsoft and Apple!

The WE500 does lack a few features. The dial doesn’t work with phone trees (but who likes phone trees anyways?). The WE500 has no GPS capability. It’s incompatible with apps from the iPhone store. Worst of all, you can’t take it with you on trips to the market or hardware store. It must remain plugged into the wall.

On the other hand, Starbucks will never be able to use the WE500 to suggest nearby locations. When I’m at the hardware store, contemplating threaded fittings, nobody can reach me. And I’ll not lose productivity with my WE500 since you can’t use it to play games or “Google” things.

Lest this turn into an anti-technology rant, let me praise the wonders of the interwebs for providing the schematics and instructions I used to get the bells of my WE500 ringing again. And I like contemplating the possibility of pairing the WE500 with Google Voice all in the service of a blog about getting in touch with the natural world. After all, why get lost in a dialectical struggle between iPhone addicted hipsters and the Amish? As Ted Friedman puts it, “we are all – human, animal, machine, plant, stone, wind — part of the same integrated circuit, inextricably enmeshed in multiple feedback loops.”

Still, it’s good to examine those loops critically, on occasion. I’m reaching a point where I can no longer deal with the volume of incoming emails and still have time to make and do things. I can remember the days before answering machines and call waiting. If you weren’t home the caller would just have to try again another time. But you can’t go back. At least I can still enjoy the electro-mechanical bells of the WE500.


The Western Electric 500 served from 1949 to 1984. The one I fixed was manufactured in 1961 and refurbished a decade later. Read more about the WE500 as well as excellent repair instructions for many different old phones here.

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15 Comments

  1. Hi Erik,

    I’m tempted to buy a cheap one based on your post. I found a not cheap one ($45) at blacktelephones.com, only to see a fine print warning at the bottom of a their page saying that they are not recommended for “DSL systems”. Which I have.

    Any idea why the incompatibility? Or if I can modify the phone or my DSL hookup/.

  2. Hey Bruce,

    Interesting that they are fetching $45. I used to see them all the time at thrift stores. Anyways, the phone company gave me a little filter thingy when I signed up for DSL. I’ve had no problems. Hope you are doing well.

  3. How wonderful that someone likes old phones like I do! Growing up as a kid my mom taught me how to take things apart and fix them. Throughout the ’60-90′s we fixed all our phones and wired in more when we needed them. Simple stuff. The old things were made to last and are easy to repair. I recently went to the 99 cent store and got a caller ID (for a buck no less) and hooked it onto my old desk phone. Instant update! And the old phones are easier to talk and work on at the same time. I have a 50 foot cord and a long ‘extension’ so I can walk around and chop veggies, fold laundry etc. while I talk on the phone. The phone company I have offers voice mail so if someone tries to call when I am on the phone it goes to voice mail. LIFE IS GOOD!
    Mary

  4. We have one that once lived at a local funeral home,which we find to be a perfect fit to our household humor. But I will worry if we start getting odd calls.

  5. Living in Florida, I am always concerned about losing power due to hurricanes. After Hurrice Ivan we lost our power for eight days. Cellphone towers were down for most of that time, too. However, I learned that these old dial-type telephones still work when your “modern” telephones don’t. The new ones require power, the old don’t. So I went searching on the internet. I think I found my Western Electric on eBay, and I remember that I paid $8.00 for it. The seller said that it wouldn’t ring and that he thought it might just be a loose wire. And, sure enough, that was the problem. I also found a schematic on the internet, fixed it within two minutes of opening the case, and have had it plugged in to my regular telephone line ever since. Good luck.

  6. I have a WE500 sitting on my nightstand! When the electricity goes out and every other piece of electronics fails that phone actually works : ) The other day my granddaughter actually had to be shown how to dial….LOL

  7. Remember it well. We had ONE. Sometimes, we just didn’t answer it. During the big East Coast Black Outs they worked when nothing else did. you could actually tuck that monster handset between your ear and shoulder without punching numbers or disconnecting your call and it didm’t slide out either. Life was good

  8. I miss these phones actually! I will have to get them out of my dads attic. Im sure he has a few. Makes me think about getting rid of vonage voip phone and going back to standard lines. Hmm.

    So do you have that awesome TV connector by Western Electric? THAT would be awesome to use with Skype :)

    -1916home.net

  9. We have a couple, one Eastern European which is set up for party lines. When I hang up, it dings and when the other end hangs up there’s a second ding. Sometimes it dings on its own – hmmm. We also have a cellphone because after the flood here in NOLA, we had no landlines until August of the following year. We got the cellphone when we evacuated and were able to call around and locate everyone (though it did take weeks). I had insisted I’d never get a cellphone, but living on the road, in campgrounds and some hotels for six weeks, wondering if my old lady neighbors made it, if all I love were okay, then that cellphone ringing and Hooray! another friend’s voice, like one old lady in Texas (I can call her old, she was 83 then), the relief. We still have the cellphone as much as I prefer the landline.

  10. I remember the wall mount phone in the kitchen of our 1950′s ranch in So Cal. Sorta gold sorta beige. If we interupted Mom while she was talking she would bop us on the top of our head, back in the day when one could bop without reprisal. Pop eventually had one installed in their bedroom incase she went into labor while he was working the lateshift. It was white and had a special soft chime. He made a big deal about the how the installer asked hin if he wanted a phone in the living room too. For years he would ask, “who talks that much”?

  11. I got a 1953 WE phone for $10 at a local antique shop. It worked perfectly, and came with a modular jack adaptor. However, it did not ring. The instructions for rewiring were easy. It rings now.
    Thanks

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