Before the Lucent name, the business was a part of AT&T and was the combination of Western Electric and Bell Labs. Bell Labs was always a wonderment for techies like me because they employed some of the smartest minds in the world. The lab was started by Alexander Graham Bell and over the years they developed such things as the transistor, the laser, information theory, and the UNIX and C++ programming languages. There were eight Nobel Prize winners from Bell Labs. I worked in the Bell System for a few years pre-divestiture and it was a point of pride to work for the same company that operated Bell Labs.
There was a time when Western Electric was the sole manufacturer of telephones and telecommunications devices. I recall that when I was a kid the only option for a home phone was the ponderously heavy, black Western Electric phone. These were hard wired and didn’t have long cords and when you talked you had to stand close to the phone. Over the years, Western Electric introduced smaller phones like the Princess phone and introduced longer cords that provided a little more freedom when using the phone. But all of the Western Electric phones were solid and they rarely had problems or broke. They were solid America technology made in America.
The first big change I remember for Western Electric was when AT&T started licensing other companies to make some handsets. I remember when the Mickey Mouse phone, the Sculptura phone (pictured here) and other colorful phones hit the market. Within a few years, the FCC began to widely license handsets made by numerous companies as long as they passed Bell Labs certification, and Western Electric lost their monopoly on handsets.
Western Electric also made the bulk of the electronics used by AT&T. These included voice switches, line repeaters, and various kinds of carriers used to carry more than one call at a time across a piece of copper. But Western Electric never had a total monopoly and companies like Nortel often sold equipment to non-AT&T telcos.
The big change for the companies came during the divestiture of AT&T in 1984. During the divestiture both Western Electric and Bell Labs were placed into the AT&T Technologies subsidiary. The companies went on, largely unchanged, until they were spun off from AT&T as Lucent, a standalone corporation, in 1996. Most of Lucent’s business was still with the various Bell companies, but they were branching out into numerous fields of telephony technology. At that time Lucent was the mostly widely held stock company in the US and had a stock price of $84 and a market capitalization of $258 billion.
Lucent fell onto hard times at the end of 2000 and was one of the first companies to be hurt by the telephony and dot com crash. The industry as a whole had heavily pursued the new competitive telephone companies (CLECs) that had been authorized by Congress and the FCC in 1996. Unfortunately, the large companies like Lucent and Nortel provided significant vendor financing to the fledgling CLEC industry, and when those companies started folding all of the large manufacturers were thrown into financial trouble.
Lucent never fully recovered from that crash (like many other tech companies that disappeared at that time). Their stock lost significant capitalization from the crash, but then really got slammed when it was revealed that the company had been using dubious accounting methods for recognizing sales and revenues. By May of 2001, the company’s stock had fallen to $9. I remember at the time that everybody in the industry could quote the Lucent stock price and we all watched in wonder as the company crashed and burned.
Over the next few years Lucent tried to gain some value by spinning off business units. It spun off its business systems into Avaya and its microelectronics unit unto Agere Systems. By 2003 the Lucent stock price was down to just over $2 per share and the company had shed over 130,000 employees. Lucent merged with Alcatel in 2006 and became Alcatel Lucent (ALU). That company did well for a while but then had a long string of losses until positive profits were recently announced.
And now the business has been absorbed by Nokia, mostly to pick up the division that makes 4G wireless equipment. There is not much of the old company left. Bell Labs is still around and one has to wonder if Nokia will continue to operate it. The Lucent history is not unusual for high tech companies. Western Electric had a near-monopoly for decades, but over time everything made by them changed drastically and newer companies ate away at the old giant. Today we have new giant companies like Apple and Samsung, and if history is any indicator they will someday be supplanted by somebody new as well.