The Western Electric 160 Series Payphone
Of all the 3 slot payphones sought by collectors the Western Electric 160 series are the most difficult to find. A year ago I was fortunate enough to acquire two of them for my collection. Both phones were in poor condition and required restoration.
When I finished restoring them I posted a few pictures of the phones with comments as a ‘photo essay’ on the Antique Telephone Collectors picture site.
Because of their importance in the evolution of the 3 slot payphone I now realize they warrant a more in depth study not just a few passing comments. That’s the reason for this article.
The original design for the 3 slot pre-pay paystation was the result of an engineering partnership between the Gray Telephone Paystation Company and the Western Electric Company. This partnership was formed after the loss of lawsuits by the Bell System brought by Gray Mfg.
Beginning with the development of the Model 50A manual pre-pay 3 slot in 1911, this engineering partnership lasted well into the 1930s.
By 1935 the patents held by Gray Mfg. for gravity drop coin signaling had expired. With the expiration of these patents the Bell System was free to manufacture their own payphones. The 160C series was their first attempt.
The first of the 160 series was the 161A. There is disagreement among collectors whether Western Electric or Gray manufactured these phones.
Refer to Fig. 1. Although they are embossed “Western Electric Company Inc.” in lightening script above the vault compartment and not the usual “ The Gray Telephone Paystation Company and Western Electric Co. Inc. Makers”, I’m 100% certain Gray, not Western Electric, manufactured them.
Internally the 161A is identical to earlier models made by Gray except for a few minor changes in the back casting and the wood terminal strip. The 161A has a groove along the top edge of the casting and an alignment tab cast in the right side to position the top. The screw terminals are mounted to the wood strip using rivets rather than wood screws as in earlier models. The two lowest terminal positions on the wood strip and the burglar alarm switch were eliminated. These differences can be seen in Fig 1.
The 161A has the same high quality found in all payphones built by Gray Mfg. If you examine early models that were definitely manufactured by Western Electric the lack of quality compared to the 161A is obvious. Defective seam welding and poor fit of the tops and bottoms are the rule not the exception. Welded patches on defective cast backs are also common. Not very pretty but historically interesting.
Manufacture of the models 161C, 162C and 163C marked the beginning of the changes made by Western Electric to the 3 slot payphone that are of technical interest and historic significance. It’s obvious that Western Electric designed these for ease of manufacture and reduction in cost compared to earlier payphones made for them by Gray Mfg.
You might be wondering what happened to the 161B? So am I. Apparently they skipped that model number.
Figs. 2 and 3 show a 161C compared to its earlier Gray 150 series counterpart. Gone is the handmade wiring harness with soldered connections. There’s no lacing cord, wood strip or separate hook-switch. All that was replaced by a unified transfer contact/hook-switch assembly.
Fig. 4 is a close-up of the screw terminals of a transfer contact/hook-switch assembly. What makes this assembly unique to the 160C series is the stamping of ‘Rec and Rec’ on two of the terminals.
Note the two terminals with the wires soldered to them. They are highlighted in red. This assembly is in the 163C post-pay phone. These terminals isolate the ‘Y’ screw terminal from one of the hook-switch contacts.
In a post-pay phone like this 163C, the switch assembly mounted on the hopper is wired across these terminals. The switch contacts momentarily break the ‘Y’ connection to one side of the hook-switch when a coin passes through the hopper and puts a resistor in series between the payphone and one side of the phone line. This scheme was used in all Western Electric post-pay 3 slots to signal the CO that a coin had been deposited. The resistor is the round bobbin sitting in front of the hopper assembly of the 163C in Fig. 11.
Refer to Fig. 5. The transfer contact/hook-switch assembly used in a prepay phone like the 161C in Fig. 11 would have these two solder terminals omitted. The ‘Y’ screw terminal would be connected directly to one of the hook-switch contacts.
Fig. 6 is a close-up of the redesigned transfer contact assembly in the top of a 160C series payphone (right), compared to the older style Gray Mfg. (left). The new design is a fibre mounting board with riveted terminals. It consists of 18 parts as compared with the older style Gray that had 29 component parts(1). This new style assembly (but with various numbers of contacts) was used in every model Western Electric payphone up until the final version of the 234G. That’s a life span of almost 30 years.
Fig. 7 is a close-up comparing the switchhook of a 160C to an earlier style Gray/Western. The new hook is stamped steel and required no machining. The older hook was cast bronze and required machining on three surfaces to adjust the angle, travel and stops(1). This change resulted in a cost saving of $0.20(1). Remember, this was in 1935. A saving of $0.20 could have been 50% of the total cost of the part.
Fig. 8 compares the shape of these hooks viewed from outside the phones. When you know what to look for it’s easy to spot a 160C series without having to open the payphone.
The design of the 160C series hopper also underwent changes. Older style hoppers were made of nickel-plated sheet brass. They were held together with screws and nuts or rivets and required milling to trim the edges. The 160C series hopper was galvanized steel sheet that was stamped and spot welded and needed no milling. This represented a significant reduction in assembly time and cost of material.
Fig. 9 is a hopper I removed from a 162C. It’s locked in the collect position using bailing wire. It’s not the prettiest hopper in captivity but it couldn’t be more original.
The reason original 160C series payphones are so scarce today is due to the introduction of the 180 series handset payphone in 1940. If you’ve ever used a 2-piece payphone you know how uncomfortable they are. The introduction of the more comfortable handset payphone guaranteed the eventual demise of the 2-piecer.
Like older 2-piece payphones, the 160Cs were remanufactured into 170 series handset phones. Since there were far fewer of the 160C series made and for a much shorter period of time (only five years) compared to the 50G and 150G, very few of them survived intact compared to the older models.
Gone forever are the 2-piece steel switch-hooks, bulldog transmitters, 10A transmitter mounts and 706 receivers. All that great stuff became dumpster food………………What a pity!
Fig. 10 is an example of what I found when I started to restore the phones. It will give you some idea of the condition the phones were in. You can see the bad news. The good news is there wasn’t anything moving around inside.
Fig. 11 is a look ‘under the hood’ of the two restored payphones. The phone on the right is a post-pay 163C. The one on the left is a pre-pay 161C.
After taking this picture I realized I had put a varistor in the 163C. The varistor is the white block that’s across the terminals of the switch mounted on the hopper. I built this phone to agree with the diagram pasted on the back casting (circa late 1930s). Varistors didn’t exist in the 1930s (they were added in the phones many years later). I’m too lazy to set the phones up to take another picture so just make believe the varistor isn’t there.
The diagram on the back casting of the 163C was computer-generated from a picture of one that was emailed to me by an ATCA member. To date I’ve had no luck locating a collector that owns a 161C who would be willing to take a picture of that diagram for regeneration. Hopefully one will eventually be found. I’m also looking for a first version BSP on the 160C series dated around 1936 to sit along side the phones.
Fig. 12 shows the two ‘C’ series payphones fully restored and mounted on 139A brackets.
Each of these phones has a cable that plugs into a subset and a simulator for its appropriate type of coin line. Like all the payphones in my collection they function as they did when they were in everyday service. Everything works, including the coin mechanisms.
The history of the 3-slot payphone is a part of Americana that spans almost 70 years. If you have an interest in them or any other aspect of antique telephone collecting such as repair, restoration or modification, I suggest you visit:
The opinions, views and statements in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the ATCA.
(1) This information came from Bell Labs and was supplied to the author by Ron Knappen, foremost payphone expert and owner of Phoneco Inc. http://www.phonecoinc.com/