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Charles Whitener holds a vacuum tube manufactured by Western Electric. Whitener grew up in Rome and Dalton, Ga., lived for 22 years in Atlanta and now calls Lookout Mountain, Ga., home. His great-great-great grandfather, James Enfield Berry, was Chattanooga's first mayor.
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The four-story Western Electric headquarters on Chickamauga Avenue in Rossville is owned by Charles Whitener.

In 1983, Western Electric was the world's fifth-largest industrial corporation, with its headquarters in a Manhattan skyscraper and a storied history of technological innovation --including introducing talking motion pictures in the 1920s.

AT&T stopped using the venerable company's name in 1984, as part of the breakup of "Ma Bell" into "baby bells."

Now, Western Electric has been resurrected. Its headquarters are in Rossville, Ga., at 410 Chickamauga Ave. in a four-story, 65,000-square-foot former Wachovia bank. The once-vacant building was adorned about three weeks ago with distinctive red-lettered "Western Electric" signs on its east and west sides.

The Rossville operation will make vacuum tubes mainly for use in high-end audio components.

"It's a lost art," company president Charles G. Whitener Jr. said.

Vacuum tubes once were ubiquitous in household radios, stereos and televisions until they were supplanted by transistors.

Yet tubes still are sought by audiophiles, or enthusiasts of high-quality sound reproduction.

Music is "a series of pulses, and tubes do pulsing," Whitener said.

Whitener's company sells a handful of different models of vacuum tubes that are exact reproductions of Western Electric "classics," such as the 300B tube that originally was used in movie theaters.

Do-it-yourselfers buy the tubes to use in amplifiers they make or to upgrade an amplifier that they bought.

Or you can buy the 97A, a high-end stereo amplifier that Western Electric makes using its 300B tube.

"If you have enough money," Whitener said.

The complete 97A stereo amplifier costs about $100,000.

Tubes to be made in Rossville

Whitener previously employed about 20 people at facilities in Kansas City, Mo., and in Huntsville, Ala.

Since his stock of vacuum tubes is dwindling, he plans eventually to hire skilled workers and start manufacturing tubes on the fourth floor of the Rossville building.

Whitener will use the second floor for Western Electric offices and demonstration rooms. Currently, Whitener, his secretary and sales and marketing employees are the only staff on site.

Whitener also wants to expand his product line and produce additional models of tubes to sell to guitar amplifier makers such as Peavey, Fender, Marshall and Mesa Boogie.

He plans to lease the building's first and third floors to other tenants. The building already has one tenant, Absolute Synergy Squad, a computing and Internet consulting business.

"This is a very positive thing for Rossville," Mayor Teddy Harris said. "We are very excited to see this building being used. I look forward to welcoming those businesses that choose to move to the Western Electric building."

'A great, old company'

Whitener grew up in Rome and Dalton, Ga., lived for 22 years in Atlanta and now calls Lookout Mountain, Ga., home. His great-great-great grandfather, James Enfield Berry, was Chattanooga's first mayor.

Whitener previously developed the once-vacant 120,000-square-foot Combustion Engineering headquarters at 1301 Riverfront Parkway in Chattanooga into office space.

"I'm in the electronics business. I'm in real estate development, too," he said.

Whitener majored in communications arts and journalism at Rhodes College in Memphis but said he always had a knack for electronics.

His office in Rossville abounds with Western Electric memorabilia and vacuum tubes.

"It's a great old company," Whitener said.

He can recount from memory detailed histories of such technological milestones as the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, the invention of the triode amplifying tube by Lee De Forest, and the telephone patent wars between Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray -- who co-founded Western Electric.

Whitener wanted the Western Electric name and approached AT&T to get it.

"It took me two years to talk them into it," he said. "It helps because of the quality associated with the brand."

Western Electric used to make every telephone for the Bell System companies that had a monopoly on U.S. phone service. Customers didn't own their own phones. They leased Western Electric phones, which the Bell companies repaired free of charge. For that reason, Bell wanted sturdy phones -- and Western Electric delivered.

"When Western Electric made phones, they were indestructible," Whitener said, pointing to a vintage phone in his office. "That thing still works."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at or 423-757-6651.