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.