Last week I spent a happy couple of hours on the Internet after spotting a news article saying that the cell phone industry had just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
There is a heap of information available on the history of cell phones and I waded through a fair bit of it to establish that the occasion was, in fact, the anniversary of the first commercial call made on a portable cell phone.
Wireless phones, which could be used to dial telephone numbers, go back to the 1950s, with one system being launched by Ericcson in Sweden in 1956. The phones apparently weighed 40kg and can’t have been that tempting for the man-in-the street.
There were other early mobile phone systems, including the Norwegian OLT, which was once the largest network in the world. The real trouble with the early systems, apart from their bulky nature, was that you had to stay within range of the same cell tower until your conversation was finished.
According to Wikipedia, it was as far back as 1947, that the idea of using a system of hexagonal cells for wireless telephone communications was first thought of by engineers at Bell Labs.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s, however, when a system was invented by another Bell Labs scientist, Amos E. Joel Jr., which made it possible for you to drive along and for your call to be handed off from one cell tower to another.
Scenting the chance for some money, Motorola decided that they would develop a portable handset and, on April 3, 1973, successfully demonstrated their DynaTAC handset, which had been developed by a team led by Martin Cooper.
It was 1973 and they had a portable handset but it was not until 10 years later that the US government gave its approval to the phone and establishment of a cellular network. And we thought our government was slow!
The first commercial call was made by Bob Barnett, president of Ameritech Mobile Communications, using a DynaTAC 8000X handset in October 13, 1983. All the Internet sources agree that the call was made to Alexander Graham Bell’s grandson, who was in Germany at the time.
It’s a quirk of the Internet, and of everyone copying each other, I suppose, that the grandson was not named by any of the sources I found. He could have been Melville Bell Grosvenor, who was editor of National Geographic for some time, but I couldn’t find out definitively.
The DynaTAC was known as the ‘brick’, being 25cm tall and over 800g in weight, but it proved to be very popular in spite of the fact that it cost nearly $4000. The service charges and calls were also very expensive, but there were 12000 subscribers within the year.
It is almost inconceivable to me how quickly cell phone usage has taken off with millions and millions of people now using them all day, every day. The other incredible thing is how small some handsets have become as shown by that model who tucked her Motorola into her bikini, and there no additional bulges anywhere to be seen.
I did have a brief romantic idea in 1996, that I wouldn’t have a cell phone and leave that side of things to my then business partner. It wasn’t even a month later that reality intruded, and I found myself lugging one of those Nokia 2010s around.
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