April 3, 2013

The First Cell Phone Call: Excerpt from “Networked: The New Social Operating System”

April 3, 1973 (40 years ago today): The first cell phone call was made on a prototype of what would become the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x (http://qz.com/70309/the-first-mobile-phone-call-was-made-40-years-ago-today/), by Martin Cooper.

Fast forward to April 3, 2013: Our recent surveys show that 87% of American adults have a cell phone, along with 78% of American teenagers ages 12 to 17. 44% of adult cell owners have slept with their phone next to their bed; 67% find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls even when they don’t notice it ringing or vibrating; and 29% describe their cell phone as “something they can’t imagine living without.”

In short: The U.S. has gone mobile.

Cell and smartphones over time

And not just by way of mobile phones; As of January 2013, 26% of American adults own an e-reader, and 31% own some kind of tablet computer. And in another 40 years, will we be writing the same nostalgic blog post about the first use of Google Glass?

What do you think, Martin Cooper?

The first cell phone call: Excerpt from “Networked: The New Social Operating System” by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman

The earliest public mobile communication in the United States was a comedy—at least to one of the participants. In the telling of Motorola engineer Martin Cooper, the first mobile call took place on April 3, 1973, using a two-pound instrument that had a maximum talk-time of thirty minutes and took a year for the battery to recharge. Cooper’s version of events is not fully corroborated by others, though it has not been fully refuted either. He says he was accompanied by reporters on a walk in Manhattan and placed the call as a publicity stunt in front of reporters to a longtime rival at Bell Labs, Joel Engel.

Cooper began: “Guess who this is, you sorry sonofabitch?” Cooper says he could hear Engel whisper to a colleague, “It’s him again” and the Bell official then hung up. Cooper continued to roam around mid-town Manhattan with reporters in tow, dialing in to Engel’s office every once in a while and asking, “Can you hear me now?”

The calls were especially sweet to Cooper for two reasons. The first is that Bell had developed mobile phone technology, but had little idea how to exploit it. Motorola did. “We desperately wanted to avoid having a Bell monopoly of this new technology,” Cooper said in an interview. The second is that Engel had been a longtime tormentor of Cooper going back to their high school days. So Cooper made sure to initiate one of the calls from a men’s bathroom. “I wanted a way to get back at him; show him that I wasn’t just ‘Farty McCooper’ as he used to call me. I thought I could teach Engel a lesson or two with a real cellular phone.” By 1983, Motorola had created a one-pound phone that sold for $3,500.1

It is fitting that these first mobile calls were annoying interruptions, given the ambivalent feelings many people have now about the intrusiveness of mobile phones. These early calls came after nearly a century of breakthroughs in radio communication that started with wireless links among ships. They advanced sharply when transistors became a part of mobile telephony in the 1950s and global standards for wireless digital transmissions were established in the 1980s. Citizens band (CB) radios proliferated in the 1970s, affording short-distance broadcast chats for lonely drivers and speed-trap avoiders.2
Car phones came into being in 1946. In 1955, the American TV show Highway Patrol made these phones famous when Broderick Crawford repeatedly barked out “10-4: over and out” to end a mobile conversation. Yet, these phones used eighty pounds of equipment in the early years and needed operator assistance.

Things took off in less than a decade as better technology emerged: transistor and battery improvements reduced the size of the phones. Signaling capacity also improved and vastly speeded up telephone networks’ capacity to transmit calls. Cell towers sprouted up quickly in cities and then suburbs as demand grew. Technology switched in the 1960s and 1970s from rotary dial phones to pushbutton touchtone phones. This meant that phones could become “smart”—with the buttons used as inputs to computer applications and the internet. Low-cost text messaging, using the pushbuttons (and eventually keyboards), complemented voice calls for many users by the early 2000s. Digital cameras, using charged-coupled devices (CCDs), became standard phone features, allowing users to take pictures they could share with friends or put on the internet. Increasingly powerful computer chips allowed mobile phones to become smartphones: connecting to the web and hosting a variety of applications such as GPS routing systems.3

  1. Orenstam, Nate. Doctor Cellphone: Can you hear me now? Valley of the Geeks, December 20, 2007. http://www.valleyofthegeeks.com/Features/Cooper.html and Lee Rainie interview with Martin Cooper April 29, 2011.
  2. ing, Rich. The Mobile Connection.. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 2004. pp 6-11. And AT&T. 1946: First Mobile Telephone Call.http://www.corp.att.com/attlabs /reputation/timeline/ 46mobile.html.
  3. Wikipedia. History of Mobile Phones. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, March 19, 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_mobile_phones.