3 Who Made A Difference

April 5, 2010

When researching the history of the cell phone it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify one person or one event or one day when it all began. The cell phone, after all,  “represents a largely incremental step in a technology development that had been underway since the 1920s”.  We can look back to the 1960s and ‘70s and find important developments that led to supporting technologies that allowed the cell phone to become a reality…but there was no single technological breakthrough. “Cellular radio is not so much a new technology as a new idea for organizing existing technology on a larger scale”  (Ring 2010).

Still, cell phones would not exist today if not for the dedicated efforts of a long list of individuals. For the purposes of this essay, we will take for granted that electricity was invented; that technology had learned to master the airwaves; that the telegraph was invented and the telephone came along to improve on that. We will take for granted that the walkie talkie was invented and had been in use since World War II making wireless communications possible between two parties. We will even ignore, for a moment, the fact that car phones had been in existence years before the unit we now call the cell phone. We will look back to1947 when the cellular concept was first identified and pursued by researchers at Bell Labs and subsequently Motorola. And we visit 1973 with the first recognized cellular phone call. But we must keep in mind that a full 36 years passed between the cellular concept in 1947 and the first commercial cellular systems in 1983.

Martin Cooper is the man most recognize as the “inventor” of the cell phone (Author unknown 1).

When looking for that seminal moment in the history of the cell phone, it is impossible not to point out the fact that Dr Cooper made the first cell phone call while walking on the streets on Manhattan on the way to a meeting on April 3rd, 1973. He was surrounded by the media and took the opportunity to call his archrival with that first call. “The phone came alive, connecting Mr. Cooper with the base station on the roof of the Burlington Consolidated Tower (now the Alliance Capital Building) and into the land-line system. To the bewilderment of some passers-by, he dialed the number and held the phone to his ear” (Author unknown 2).  Martin Cooper was a key player on the staff of Motorola at the time and they were in a race with the engineers at Bell Labs to be the first to successfully create “the cell phone”. And he should receive a great deal of credit. It was his vision for “personal wireless communications”, distinct from the phones currently in use in so many automobiles at the time, that drove his staff for years. “People want to talk to other people – not a house, or an office, or a car. Given a choice, people will demand the freedom to communicate wherever they are, unfettered by the infamous copper wire. It is that freedom we sought to vividly demonstrate in 1973,” said Martin Cooper (Author unknown 1). Hardened New Yorkers gaped as they witnessed Dr Cooper speaking on his cellular device while walking the sidewalks of Manhattan. To put it in perspective, we did not even have cordless phones in our homes in 1973! (Author unknown 1). The moment was an important one, but it was just the beginning for Cooper and his staff as it then took 10 years before they successfully brought the cell phone to the commercial market. It was the Dynatec, which was made famous by Michael Douglas in the movie “Wall Street”. It was a huge, clumsy brick-like thing…but it worked. It cost $3,500 and the service was extremely limited, so it is safe to say that, at first, this new product was a new toy only for the well to do.

I am reminded of Alexander Graham Bell’s race to patent his telephone technology just moments ahead of other serious competitors. That is what it was like for the researchers and engineers at Motorola and Bell Labs in the late 1960s-early ‘70s. They were both working feverishly to bring cellular technology to reality So imagine the despair for the Bell staff when they received that first cell phone call from Dr Cooper…as well as the elation of the Motorola staff. But while Cooper and his staff receive the bulk of the credit, they were doing things at Bell Labs that today’s cell phone marketplace could not exist without.

For that reason, I nominate Joel Engel as the second most important individual in the creation of the cell phone. Whereas most people remember Dr Cooper, few know who Mr. Engel is. Heck, how many people know who Elisha Gray is? Well, Mr. Gray applied for a patent on his new telephone just hours after Alexander Graham Bell successfully did so. And Joel Engel? Well, he was in charge of the team at Bell Labs that was racing to create the first cell phone at the same time Dr Cooper and his staff at Motorola was. In fact, Mr. Engel was the man on the other end of the phone when Dr Cooper made that most important first phone call. But Mr. Engel was not a punch line. In fact, he and his staff at Bell Labs were creating technologies that would make today’s cell phone “system” possible. Most don’t realize that Dr Cooper’s chief rival at Bell labs was the first to develop the electronic components necessary for cellular technology (Fiset 2010).

Most do not realize that since only a few hundred people in a typical city had car phones, there were not enough free radio channels to allow for more than a few conversations to occur at any one time. Or that it was Engel and his team that developed a concept that multiplied the capacity of each channel by 1,000. Their system created small coverage areas called “cells”. A land-based network tracked cars (or future cell phones) within these cells and switched calls from cell to cell as they moved around (Author unknown 3).  So it was Engel’s system that solved major problems such as how cellular systems locate vehicles and hand off calls from cell to cell as vehicles move. The system consisted of multiple low-power transmitters that covered a city in a hexagonal grid, with automatic call handoff from one hexagon to another. It also allowed for the reuse of frequencies within the city. The technology to implement all of this simply did not exist and the frequencies needed were simply not available. Not until the late ‘60s when Engel and his team came along and made it all a reality (Author unknown 4).

In addition, Engel is credited with “having provided the research required to focus the optimization of system parameters and characterize cellular capacity sufficiently to arrive at federal rules and regulations for standardization and use” (Author unknown 3).  It is safe to say that, among the long list of individuals who helped create today’s cellular system, Joel Engel was a major contributor.

Enough said about the 1973 battle to be first. For my third individual, I would like to turn the clock back to 1947 and introduce a man named Douglas Ring. As we have mentioned several times, no one person can be given the credit for the “invention’ of the cell phone. But it is safe to say that one of the visionaries behind it was Douglas Ring. It was December 11th, 1947…a full 26 years before Dr Cooper’s famous first cell phone call, that Douglas Ring, an engineer at Bell Labs, wrote a memo outlining his vision for a cellular telephone system. “In 1947 the cellular concept “materialized from nowhere” and was embodied in an internal Bell Labs memorandum authored by D. H. Ring with major input from Bell Labs colleague W.R. Young. This paper summed up the thinking of Bell scientists, and suggested that it might be possible to build a high capacity land mobile radio telephone system that could provide wide area coverage with a modest allocation of frequencies”  (Ring 2010).  It outlines many of the concepts so critical to today’s modern cellular systems. It discusses the idea of installing low power transmitters for small areas (the “cells” that Engel would later perfect 20 years later) permitting significant frequency reuse within the service area. It identified the hexagonal layout currently in use; the concept of sub-dividing cells into even smaller ones (cell splitting) in order to increase capacity as demand increased; and it identified the need for “handoff” techniques. Finally, he noted that interference could be reduced by the installation of base stations that could control the power of the mobile transmitters (Ring 2010).

Ring took little credit for the memo, deciding instead to call it merely a putting into words the consensus of his fellow engineer’s thoughts at the time. I think he’s too modest. Douglas Ring possessed no less than 12 U.S. patents ranging from “volume control circuits” in 1934 to “microwave coupling systems” in 1942 and “high speed switching networks” in 1960. He was a visionary and, perhaps more importantly, one who was capable of making his vision a reality.

The following link will bring you to Mr. Ring’s 20 page “memo”. It’s a fascinating read when one considers when it was written. It reads like the blueprint that would guide fellow Bell lab engineers for decades, including Joel Engel (Ring 2010).


Array Comm. Martin Copper. Photograph.


Author unknown 1. Martin Cooper: History of Cell Phone. New York Times. http://inventors.about.com/cs/inventorsalphabet/a/martin cooper.htm. April 3, 2010.

Author unknown 2. Martin Cooper: Inventor of Cell Phones. Cellular Online, 2006.

http://www.cellular.co.za/cellphone_inventor.htm. April 3, 2010.

Author unknown 3. Inventor of the Week Archive. The Lemelson-MIT Program,

December 2000. http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/freneng.html. April 3, 2010.

Author Unknown 4. 1946: First Mobile Telephone Call. AT&T Enterprise 2010. http://www.corp.att.com/attlabs/reputation/timeline/46mobile.html April 3, 2010.

Fiset, Nathalie. Cell Phone: The Past, the Present and the Future. Ezine Articles, 2010.

http://ezinearticles.com/?Cell-Phone:-The-Past,-the-Present-and-the-Future&id=433391. April 3, 2010

Ring, Douglas H.. Chapter 4: The Cellular Telephone. Intelius people

Search. 2010. http://search.intelius.com/Douglas-H.-Ring/websites/frame?h=eb70bfd10a&title=CHAPTER+IV%3A+THE+CELLULAR+TELEPHONE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.sri.com%2Fpolicy%2Fcsted%2Freports%2Fsandt%2Ftechin2%2Fchp4.html. April 3, 2010.


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