40th Anniversary of the Mobile Phone

40th Anniversary of the Mobile Phone

The 1960s TV hit Get Smart featured a running gag about a shoe phone — a phone embedded in Maxwell Smart’s shoe. One reason it was funny was that it seemed so far-fetched.

But not to the Motorola engineers who, in April 1973, released the world’s first cellphone. They used to call it the Shoe Phone because that was the only thing they had to compare it to.

radio-telephone car

In the mid-1940s, mobile telephone service (MTS) devices started popping up. They let you make phone calls over radio waves, but they only worked over a limited geographical area. So no long-distance calls. Eventually, the technology improved and radio phones were installed in vehicles.

star trek 1966

star trek – 1966

In July 1969, the Apollo 11 spacecraft is through the installation of the Motorola wireless transponder, to deliver voice communications and television signals between Earth and the moon, but also human return from the moon the first sentence.

motorola space

The next big challenge for phone makers was to create a handheld device, not something clunky that had to be installed in your car.  Many people at Motorola, however, felt mobile phones would never be a mass-market consumer product. They wanted the firm to remain focussed on business car phones.

The story of the development of cellphones in Motorola is also filled with the excitement worthy of a Hollywood thriller: coming up with a imagination-capturing work within an impossible deadline, to thwart the impending AT&T’s application for monopoly rights over the cellular telephone business. At AT&T’s request the FCC had scheduled a new round of hearings for May 1973.

martin cooper

martin cooper in 2003

The biggest problem the Motorola team faced was time. This gave Motorola’s Martin Cooper and his engineers less than three months to design and assemble a product that had never been built and still have time for testing and demonstrations for both the media and the FCC prior to the hearings.

Everyone involved would have to drop everything.

After Motorola’s staff returned from the Thanksgiving holiday, Cooper got the ball rolling.

Rudy Krolopp, Motorola’s ebullient lead industrial designer, was the first line manager to get the news, probably because he and Cooper exercised together.

A little after 10:00 a.m. on Monday, December 4, Cooper summoned Krolopp to his second-floor office, “which was unusual,” Krolopp says, “because he usually came to mine to rap.” On his arrival he asked what Cooper wanted.

“We have to build a portable telephone,” Cooper answered.

“What the hell is that?” Krolopp asked.

“A phone you carry around with you.”

“That sounds interesting. Let me clean up what I’m working on.”

“No, you don’t understand. This has to be done in six weeks.”

early concepts

And so, sketches were made and models built. Krolopp chose eight or nine sketches, which were turned into models. The winner was a model nicknamed the “shoe phone” for its shape.

prototype dynatac

The winning prototype had been created by Ken Larson, a 10-year Motorola veteran. “His model looked like you could put it right into production,” Krolopp notes. “His wasn’t the best design in terms of creativity, but it was logical and very basic. It looked good and solved the problems.”

The day after Larson’s model was chosen, Cooper gathered a group of engineers, managers and various Motorola executives, most of whom knew nothing of the project.

Krolopp draped Larson’s model under a piece of blue cloth and stood by as Cooper described the project and the schedule. When he was done, Krolopp pulled the cover off Larson’s model.

“Eyes opened and jaws dropped, because it was really small,” Krolopp remembers. Cooper issued a challenge: “Anybody who doesn’t believe that this can’t be done in time, get up and leave the room.” “With the kind of egos we had in the room,” Krolopp says, “no one got up.”

One of the challenges was to let people talk and listen at the same time, as on a traditional phone. Walkie-talkies, the only other portable communications devices, were “push-to-talk”; only one party could speak at a time.

Another challenge was how to pack all the circuitry into a small box in the DynaTAC, one engineer put the box, jammed with components, into a workbench vise and crunched it until parts started to short-circuit.  The team watched, incredulous, as the engineer patiently picked out damaged parts with tweezers, then repeated the process – “until everything fitted and there were no shorts.”

The working prototype was conceived, built and perfected in just six weeks.

On April 3rd 1973, Martin Cooper ( shown above in San Fransisco in 2003 ) a former general manager for the systems division at Motorola and recognised as the inventor of the first portable handset – used a Motorola DynaTAC ( a 1973 prototype of the first hand-held cellular telephone ) and made the first analog mobile call on the nine-inch / 1 kg  Motorola DynaTAC.

martin cooper 1973

He called a rival engineer ( Dr Joel Engel, A T & T / Bell Labs head of research) from the pavement of Sixth Avenue to brag that he was ringing “to see if my call sounds good at your end.” and was met with a stunned, defeated silence.

Cooper then went down to the street with one of the handsets and made a few calls while posing for photographers in front of some suddenly old-fashioned pay phones. In the flood of stories that poured out the next day, reporters noted that pedestrians were “agape” at a man making a wireless call. In a prescient lead paragraph, the AP reporter noted, “There may be no way to escape the strident summons of a telephone in a few years if a portable telephone developed by Motorola Inc. catches on.”

And that, of course, was the point. “We wanted to do a dazzling demonstration,”  the team’s goal wasn’t just to invent something; it was to let the world know, in as striking a way as possible, that the something had been invented. The demo would end, appropriately, with the technologist processing to the Midtown Hilton, where a gaggle of reporters was assembled for a press conference. Cooper would hand his phone to one of those reporters so she could call her mother in Australia.

Gene Smith of The New York Times reported that “reception was clear, although the wife of one reporter told her husband, ‘Your voice sounds a little tinny… . There’s no resonance. I knew you weren’t calling from a regular phone.’”

Cooper, in other words, enjoyed — and exploited — the moment. “I made numerous calls,  including one where I crossed the street while talking to a New York radio reporter. Cooper later said he could have been the first casualty of the mobile phone era that morning.

The substance of the call is lost to history, but it probably doesn’t compare to the first telegram (“What hath God wrought”), first telephone call (“Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you”), or even the first text message (“Merry Christmas”).

Regardless, the call was a major step in the development of mobile technology, though it would take another decade for the DynaTAC to reach consumers and two more decades for cell phones to overtake land lines in worldwide usage.

The race to make the first portable phone had been won. The Pandora’s box was open.


John F. Mitchell (left), general manager of the Motorola Communications Division, and systems operations director Martin Cooper evaluated a prototype of the Motorola DynaTAC phone

Cooper and his colleagues filed their patent for a “radio telephone system” in October 1973, but the cell phone didn’t become available to the public until 1983 when they finally brought the first portable phone to market, at a retail price of a $ 3,995.

While briefcase-size models had come before it, it was Motorola’s truly mobile (that is, handheld) phone that became the go-to power accessory for entrepreneurs and high flyers in the 1970’s and onwards


gordon gecko


In 1983 the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X received approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and become the world’s first commercial handheld cellular phone. When it was made available for purchase just a few months later on March 6 1983 it ignited a demand for personal wireless communication.

martin cooper

Motorola’s DynaTAC ‘Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage’ let you talk for 30 minutes, could go a full eight hours between charges, was 13 x 1.75 x 3.5 inches in dimension, boasted eight hours of standby time, took 10 hours to recharge, featured an LED display and memory to store thirty “dialing locations”.

The price was some $3,995 in 1983 dollars.




There was a long race between Motorola and Bell Labs to produce the first portable mobile phone.

Cooper is the first inventor named on “Radio telephone system” filed on October 17, 1973 with the US Patent Office and later issued as US Patent 3,906,166.

Product Press Release 1983

motorola-dynatac-press release 2

John F. Mitchell, Motorola’s chief of portable communication products (and Cooper’s boss) was also named on the patent. He successfully pushed Motorola to develop wireless communication products that would be small enough to use anywhere and participated in the design of the cellular phone.

Product Fact Sheet 1983

motorola-dynatac-press release

The technological development that distinguished the First Generation mobile phones from the previous generation was the use of multiple cell sites, and the ability to transfer calls from one site to the next as the user travelled between cells during a conversation.


popular science 1973 cover

The first commercially automated cellular network (the 1G generation) was launched in Japan by NTT in 1979. The initial launch network covered the full metropolitan area of Tokyo’s over 20 million inhabitants with a cellular network of 23 base stations. Within five years, the NTT network had been expanded to cover the whole population of Japan and became the first nation-wide 1G network.

Several other countries also launched 1G networks in the early 1980s including the UK, Mexico and Canada. A two year trial started in 1981 in Baltimore and Washington DC with 150 users and 300 Motorola DynaTAC pre-production phones. This took place on a seven tower cellular network that covered the area.

The DC area trial turned into a commercial services in about 1983 with fixed cellular car phones also built by Motorola. They later added the 8000X to their Cellular offerings.

A similar trial and commercial launch also took place in Chicago by Ameritech in 1983 using the famous first hand-held mobile phone Motorola DynaTAC.

The company had invested fifteen years of research and $100 million in the advancement of cellular technology. They started building prototypes in the early seventies which eventually morphed into this awesome telecom monolith

Consumers were so impressed by the concept of being always accessible with a portable phone that waiting lists for the DynaTAC 8000X were in the thousands, despite the initial $ 3,995 retail price.

roy krolop

Roy Krolopp, in 1983, one of the original Motorola design team members responsible for creating the DynaTAC 8000X phone

Cooper says “we knew that someday everybody would have a [mobile]phone, but it was hard to imagine that that would happen in my lifetime.”

martin cooper

martin cooper in san francisco in 2003

20 years since Motorola launched the DynaTAC 8000X phone or ‘brick phone’ the number of global wireless subscribers in 2002 had grown from approximately 300,000 in 1984 to more than 1.2 billion and now there are nearly five billion mobile phones on the planet

notable_phone screen sizes

infographic mobile phone timeline

The evolution of Motorola handsets

But today, “phone” is synonymous with “mobile phone,” and the latest trend is toward mobile devices that aren’t really phones much at all.

Motorola’s mobile business, meanwhile, is now owned by Google.

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Since its heyday, however, the AMPS analog networks that the phone used to run on have now largely disappeared, replaced by digital ones that have added better call clarity, not to mention data connectivity at ever-improving speeds.

20 years ago tech gadgets

We’ve come a long way !



infographic mobile phones

infographic technology




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