Most merchandise-whether it's old refrigerators, desks, bicycles, automobiles, hand tools, or circuit breakers-officially becomes antiquated after 50 years. Half-century-old electrical products often wear a heavy patina of age, but they've become a venerable vintage now that the retro-1940s/1950s look is in vogue.

*To gain perspective on a half century of covering the electrical construction and maintenance business, CEE News decided to look back at some of the old products CEE News featured in 1949. Then we rounded up the old manufacturers and asked them what they're up to now.

*We wanted to show the dramatic technological leaps and bounds electrical products have made. Of course, along the way we also discovered that some tried-and-true products have required little evolution over the years. Some of the antiquated electrical products pictured on the following pages also appeared in CEE News during our first year of publication. Many of the manufacturers mentioned here were charter advertisers in our very first issue, March 1949.

Electrical switchgear, enclosures, and raceway products from that era never had body fins, balloon tires, spring seats, or two-tone streamlined hoods. And even refrigerators and electrical ranges continued to be called "white goods" through the 1950s because of their absence of color. Nevertheless, old products still clearly display clues that belong to another era-even if you have to look at the nameplate lettering to date them.

*Superficial design doesn't carry much weight with electrical equipment. Form has always tended to follow functi on in our industry-except maybe in the case of exterior lighting design for nightscapes. Much more important is how well electrical tools and equipment stand the test of time. And many of them have done very well. Circuit breakers, introduced in the 1940s , still quietly and mostly invisibly shoulder the load for customers-even though they may have branched out over the years to meet increasing demands for HVAC systems and appliances. Construction tools are forged to withstand the rigors of construction. Many tools of the 1940s, which came with lifetime guarantees, have since been passed down a generation or two.

*Comparing and contrasting products from these discrete points of time, we see the broad sweep of electrical construction and maintenance product evolution. We see that working conditions, tools, and bidding practices have become better, while competition has become more heated. We better see manufacturers adapting to times that demand safer products and conditions. We see manufacturers responding to the post-war baby boom construction with tools and prefab products that install faster, computerized products that take the tedium out of repetitive tasks and allow workers to grasp the bigger picture.

The editorial in the March 1949 Contractors' Electrical Equipment says "This is a new publication for Electrical Contractors. There has been no single place where they could get (new product) information.." We've changed our charter a bit since then-we now circulate to all electrical professionals, not just electrical contractors-but we like to think our mission is still the same. We know that the manufacturers profiled here still count on us to spread the word to you, our readers.

Cutler Hammer:

*Getting smaller all the time In the 1940s, Westinghouse introduced the DB-Type power circuit breaker, which set the industry standard for decades. The DB breaker employed the use of a solenoid to provide closing energy and an electromechanical dash-pot trip system. Pictured top is a "walk-in" outdoor low-voltage metal-enclosed switchgear from the early 1950s.

In 1998, Cutler-Hammer (which purchased the Westinghouse Distribution and Control division in 1994), introduced the Magnum DS breaker and switchgear. The metal-enclosed product is said to feature the highest interruption and shortest time ratings in the industry at 800 A through 3200 A. The switchgear offers more breaker protection per square foot of floor space, thereby reducing the unit's overall footprint. Through-the-door design enables clear and safe access to the trip unit and all breaker controls and indicators.

Burndy: grace under pressure

Connectors and connector compression tools mark the history of FCI Corp., formerly Burndy Tools. The company was founded in 1924 when Bern Dibner invented a better tool for connecting electrical conductors during the electrification of Cuba. After World War II Burndy developed a series of hand-held compression tools designed to install connectors on underground cables. The tools included such innovations as foot-powered pumps that allowed two-handed installation in hard-to-reach areas. In the photo with the white table in the foreground, circa 1941, an electrician uses a Hypress compression tool to crimp a connection. In the outdoor photo, a lineman uses a Burndy Y34B hypress compression tool, circa 1946.

Today, Burndy's Y500CT Li'l Crimp crimping tool features a 12,000-lb crimping force, 180-deg rotatable head, ergonomic handle offset, automatic blow-off with mechanical release valve, and a 15.1-inch length.

Brady USA: from hand-held pens to hand-held printers

The Quik Line Tape, shown circa 1962, was used for such applications as printed circuit master, maps, charts, graphs, plotting boards, office and plant layout, drawings, advertising layouts, artwork and pasteups, power dispatcher boards, photo negatives, and technical illustrations.

Leaping ahead 37 years, Brady USA now makes the TLS2200 Thermal Labeling System for cable identification (CEE News Editor's Choice, December 1998). The hand-held unit provides high-resolution 203 dpi thermal-transfer printing, bar-coding capability, and automatic "smart cell" label identification for easy label insertion and printing.

Thomas & Betts: The Steel City legacy

Thomas & Betts began making conduit fittings in 1912, when they purchased the standard Electrical Fittings Co., Stamford, Conn. For more than 50 years, T&B's Steel City line has provided contractors with steel boxes, covers, and accessories, as well as conduit fittings, hangers and clamps. The look of Steel City catalogs has changed dramatically from the 1947 version, pictured top. The current catalog features a more contemporary look.

T&B recently introduced the Star Teck Extreme fitting, which complements the company's line of cord and cable fittings. Other products in the T&B cord and cable fittings line today include Liquidtight Strain Relief, Ranger, Tray Cable, and Wire Mesh grips.

Pass & Seymour: automating high-volume production

In the early 1960s manufacturing electrical products was very labor intensive. Inefficiency was are apparent. The photo shows a typical process on how Pass & Seymour/Legrand manufactured high-volume products. Factory workers would assemble component parts by hand along a standard workbench. Work in process and raw material costs ran extremely high as demonstrated in the photo.

Today P&S/Legrand manufactures most of it high-volume products on fully automated assembly lines in the United States. Quality control and cost-effectiveness are the top priorities. The bottom photo shows P&S's 660 line in action

Square D: load centers branching out The QO 8 load center from 1960 (bottom), still a reliable workhorse in thousands of homes, offered "automatic trip indicated by handle position midway between on and off. Restore service by moving handle from off to on." The QO load centers (Editor's Choice, page 9) now offer 32 circuit spaces in 100-A and 125-A single-phase main breaker load centers to meet a growing need in the residential market for more branch circuits. Today's load center also offers a surge-breaker, and a secondary surge-arrester, with ground-fault circuit interrupter.

Adalet: from rugged to explosion-proof

Although this company's enclosures look and act the same as they did 50 years ago, they're a lot tougher now. NE Code and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) now require enclosures for hazardous (classified) locations to be explosionproof. Beyond boxes for those locations, Adalet has tweaked products a little here and a little there. "We've changed the handle on some of boxes and updated their shape over the years-and that's about it," said a company spokesperson. The first old photo shows Part No. JH121810, today used to make old-style lighting panelboard; the second, a XCE enclosure, customized with a meter. Both boxes were nonexplosion-proof and could be installed with approvals. Now these boxes must be explosionproof to meet UL standard 1203 and National Electrical Code Article 500 Hazardous (Classified) location installations.

Current Adalet products (color photo) include the XJF and XCE enclosures, the XJT and XJHA screw cover housings, as well as a motor starter shown in the middle of the back of the photos. Also shown is the PLM Overrol termination kit and the Jag fittings (foreground).

Wiremold: building a better raceway

Wiremold pancake raceway supplies power to women working on keypunch machines at the Madison, Wis., State Revenue buildings in the 1960s. *In the 1950s kitchen, Plugmold multioutlet raceway was mounted under the cabinets to provide receptacles for then-modern kitchen appliances. Today's kitchen not only has more appliances, it also doubles as a home office. The Access 5000 raceway provides power, video, and telephone connections in a style that fits in with today's decor. The Access 5000 raceway better conceals and organizes wiring in today's kitchen.

Ideal: from nuts, to strippers, to telecom tools

Ideal introduced the original Wire-Nut wire connector in 1927, virtually eliminating the old-fashioned "Solder and tape" method of wire connection. The Wire-Nut wire connectors were the first connectors to be manufactured with positive grip ribs, color-coding (1935), flame-retardant thermoplastic shells (1964) and square-wire springs (1978). In addition to connectors Ideal has long made cable ties, wire markers, lockout/tagout devices and cable strippers.

Ideal's popular T-Stripper was invented accidentally in 1950 by employee Max Alexander, an accomplished electrician who wired houses on weekends. On a job in DeKalb, Ill., Alexander left a coil of wire in the basement, intending to connect it into the box the next day. "Somebody during the day hooked in because they wanted a hot line," Alexander said. "When I came in I whacked that thing off with my side cutter, and air turned blue because it made the most beautiful No. 14 size hole in that wire cutter that you ever saw." The next day, with the help of some fellow Ideal employees, Alexander sketched blueprints for the dies to stamp the parts.

More than 10,000 of the strippers were ordered the first day they were placed on sale, and the rest is Ideal history.