First cellular telephone call made 40 years ago
April 8, 2013
by Mark Ollig

The faces of many New Yorker’s displayed puzzlement and curiosity April 3, 1973 while watching a very unusual occurrence.

Martin Cooper, Motorola’s Communications System Division general manager, was walking down a street sidewalk in New York City, talking into what looked like a brick being held against his head.

The “brick” was a 2-pound cellular telephone handset with 20 minutes of battery talk time.

Martin engaged in a telephone conversation with Joel Engel, who was at that time head of AT&T’s Bell Labs cellular telephone program.

AT&T was the company responsible for developing the cellular technology being used inside Martin’s newly created, never-before-seen portable cell- phone.

“Joel, I’m calling you from a cellular phone, a real cellular phone, a handheld, portable, real cellular phone,” Cooper recalled as being the first words he spoke.

Cooper said Engel did not speak for a period of time; I assume he was at a loss for words.

Engel, according to Cooper, was very polite and abruptly ended the phone call.

That call from the first portable handheld cellphone made by Motorola, must have really steamed Mr. Engel of AT&T, as Cooper recently stated Engel does not seem to recall the conversation ever taking place.

Cooper, also had a cellular telephone conversation with a New York radio reporter on that day, 40 years ago.

Before 1973, Motorola had been manufacturing bulky, mobile radio phones used in cars.

Cooper however, had decided it was time for individuals to have their own portable communications device they could carry around with them.

Mr. Cooper has said he was also influenced by the 1960s TV series “Star Trek” and the use of the small, portable, hand-held, wireless communicator used by Captain James T. Kirk.

The original series Star Trek communicator was designed by Star Trek’s prop maker, Wah Ming Chang.

And with that, Martin Cooper and his fellow co-creators made the first truly portable, cellular phone.

The first (non-cellular) wireless, mobile telephone call using a telephone handset was placed June 17, 1946, from a car in St. Louis, MO, according to AT&T’s corporate website.

This type of mobile telephone limited the driver’s telephone call being transmitted by a single radio tower with no “hand off” to another radio tower. When a driver traveled out of range of the tower, the telephone call was lost.

In 1947, AT&T’s Bell Laboratories revealed the technology model needed for a better wireless telephone network solution using cellular technology.

Development of cellular technology began in earnest, using computers and electronics, during the 1960s.

It wouldn’t be until 1977, that AT&T, along with its research and development division, Bell Labs, created the first prototype cellular networking system for widespread public use.

By 1978, AT&T began testing their new cellular telecommunications system in Chicago, and Newark, NJ.

In 1982, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officially authorized the use of commercial cellular networking services in the US.

The chairman of Motorola, Robert Galvin, while in Washington D.C. during the early 1980s, was able to get one of Motorola’s new cell phones to President Ronald Reagan. When shown the portable cellular phone, Reagan remarked, “What’s keeping us from having this?”

Subsequently, the White House decided against AT&T having a monopoly on cellular phone manufacturing, and allowed open competition for portable cellphones.

In 1983, Motorola’s 16-ounce DynaTAC (Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) portable cellular phone, costing $3,900 (plus 50 cents per minute voice charge), was first used over the new 1G (first-generation) cellular network in Chicago.

Today, you can buy an iPhone 5 that weighs less than 4 ounces, and costs $199.

It seems to take about 10 years for each new generation of cellular networking to be realized.

Looking back, it was in 1992 that 2G was released, and 2001 that 3G networks appeared.

The current 4G cellular networks have been around for approximately three years.

So, it has taken us, more or less, 30 years to get to 4G.

I wonder when we will begin seeing 5G cellular networking systems.

Reports I’ve read say it will be another seven years, but yours truly feels we will see 5G become publically available sooner.

I’ve become a bit nostalgic thinking about the first Motorola cellular phone I purchased around 1987.

The first cellphone call I remember making was to my mother; “Hey mom, I am calling you from a phone without any wires attached to it!”

All this writing about the first cellphone got me curious, so I checked on eBay and found one vintage Motorola 8000M DynaTAC “Brick” cellular phone currently selling for around $650.

“People are inherently, naturally, mobile. They want to be able to move around freely, and not be inhibited,” Cooper said during a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference he spoke at about three years ago.

Today, Martin Cooper is 84-years old and holds 11 patents in the field of wireless communications, including US Patent 3906166 titled “Radio Telephone System,” which he filed Oct. 17, 1973.

This patent, showing drawings of the cellular network and his portable cellular phones, can be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/d5nncet.

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