Rossville, Georgia, on the border with Tennessee, doesn’t look like a tech town. It’s the kind of place where homey restaurants promising succulent fried chicken and sweet tea are tucked among shuttered businesses and prosperous liquor stores. The cost of living is moderate, crime is high, politics are red, and the population has withered to 3,980.
But in the view of entrepreneur Charles Whitener, Rossville is the perfect place to stage a revival in US technology and manufacturing—albeit with a device that was cutting edge when the Ford Model A ruled the roads.
Whitener owns Western Electric, the last US manufacturer of vacuum tubes, those glass and metal bulbs that controlled current in electric circuits before the advent of the transistor made them largely obsolete. Tubes are still prized for high-end hi-fi equipment and by music gear companies such as Fender for their distinctive sound. But most of the world’s supply comes from manufacturers in Russia and China, which after the transistor era began in earnest in the 1960s helped sunset the US vacuum tube industry by driving down prices.
Whitener, a 69-year-old self-described inventor, vintage hi-fi collector, and Led Zeppelin fanatic, bought and revived AT&T’s shuttered vacuum tube business in 1995. The business has ticked along in the era of cheap overseas tubes primarily by serving the small market for vacuum tubes in premium hi-fi equipment with a model called the 300B, originally designed in 1938 to enable transoceanic phone calls.
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