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Automatic Electric Company (AE), the largest of the manufacturing units of the Automatic Electric Group, was a telephone equipment supplier for independent telephone companies in North America, and also had a world-wide presence. With its line of automatic telephone exchanges it was also a long-term supplier of switching equipment to the Bell System, starting in 1919.
In 1889, Almon Strowger, of Kansas City, Missouri, was inspired by the idea of manufacturing automatic telephone exchanges that would not require switchboard operators. He founded the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company in 1891, which held the first patents for the automatic telephone exchange. Subsequently, in 1901, Strowger helped form the Automatic Electric Company to which he leased his patents exclusively. The original facilities of the Automatic Electric Company were located in a six-story complex erected at the intersection of Morgan Street and Van Buren Street in Chicago.
Automatic Electric was later located in Northlake, Illinois, and maintained research and development facilities in Melrose Park and Elmhurst, Illinois. The Automatic Telephone and Electric Co operated a manufacturing plant in Liverpool, England, that began as a licensed manufacturer for Automatic Electric. AE acquired a manufacturing facility in Genoa, Illinois, from Leich Electric, and, in 1978, opened a research and development branch in Phoenix, Arizona. In the mid-1960s, a manufacturing plant was built in Huntsville, Alabama. Public coin operated telephones and the Styleline series of consumer telephones were manufactured there. A smaller rental telephone refurbishment operation was also moved to the Huntsville plant in the 1970s. The plant was closed in the mid-1980s as domestic labor and production costs rose sharply against overseas competitors.
Among other equipment, Automatic Electric manufactured automatic stepping switches (specifically, "Strowger switches") which enabled Strowger's vision. These switches allowed customers to connect their own calls without operator assistance. Because AT&T Corporation's Bell System used Western Electric equipment exclusively, automatic switches proliferated in independent exchange companies in the 1920s, well before the Bell System developed their own Panel switch technology. The most notable independent was General Telephone Corporation, which later became General Telephone and Electronics (GT&E). GT&E acquired Automatic Electric through a merger with Theodore Gary & Company in 1955, and it continued operating into the 1980s. Lenkurt, a manufacturer of carrier equipment, was purchased by GT&E in 1959, and held separately from Automatic Electric until 1983, when GTE merged Automatic Electric and Lenkurt into GTE Network Systems, which was quickly renamed GTE Communication Systems when AT&T announced the renaming of Western Electric as AT&T Network Systems.
In 1989, the assets of the company were placed into a joint venture between AT&T and GTE called AG Communication Systems (the A and G respectively standing for the partners' names). This company ceased separate existence in 2004, and became fully incorporated into Lucent, now Alcatel-Lucent. Alcatel-Lucent also owns many of the assets of the Western Electric Company, Automatic Electric's former rival and Bell System counterpart.
Automatic Electric's rotary dial makes a single clicking sound as it is released but is otherwise fairly silent, while Western Electric's rotary dial has a distinctive whirring sound as the dial returns to the normal position. Many AE telephones use a distinctive dual-gong ringer, the low and high tones of which are a musical minor fifth apart, rather than the typical natural third interval of most Western Electric ringers.