Emergence of the Cell Phone

April 15, 2010

How did we get here? How has the cell phone become the most indispensable piece of technology in most of our lives? How has it grown faster than any technology other than perhaps the PC or Internet. “Nothing, with the exception of maybe the Internet or television, has had such a profound impact on our culture in so few years” (Keith, Wireless, 2004). Let us begin with a brief history lesson. In 1843, a chemist by the name of Michael Faraday began researching the possibility that space can conduct electricity. He was considered  “crackpot”.  In 1865, a Virginia Dentist named Dr. Mahlon Loomis, developed a method of communicating through the earth’s atmosphere by using an electrical conductor. In1866 the first trans-Atlantic telegraph was built.  In 1921 The Detroit Police installed mobile radios in their squad cars. 1934 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created. They decided who got to use certain radio frequencies. Most channels were reserved for emergency use and for the government. In the 1940’s mobile radios became much more common in police departments and the wealthy as well as certain private companies begin using these radios for personal gain. In 1945 the first mobile-radio-telephone service was established in St. Louis. It was comprised of six channels and totaled 150 MHz. The project was approved by the FCC, but constant interference led to its failure. In 1947 AT&T introduced the first radio-car-phones for use on the highways between New York and Boston. AT&T declares the project a failure due to massive interference. In 1949 the FCC authorizes the widespread use of many separate radio channels. They are the first link between mobile phones and the telephone, rather than just radio to radio. These “radio common carriers” or RCC’s are the first step towards the creation of the cellular phone industry that we are familiar with today. 1956 The first real car phones, (not car radios like in the police cars), come into play. They work but are big and bulky, and require a radio operator to switch the calls. In 1964 a new operating system is developed that operates on a single channel at 150 MHz. This eliminates the need for operator assisted calls and allows customers to dial direct calls right from their automobiles. In 1969 this self-dialing capability is now upgraded to 450 MHz and becomes the U.S. standard. It is known as (IMTS) Improved mobile telephone service. In 1971 AT&T became the first phone company to propose a modern-day mobile-phone system to the FCC. It involved dividing cities into “cells”. 1973 Dr. Martin Cooper and his staff invented the first personal handset while working for Motorola. He named it the Dynatec and is credited with being the first person to make a call on a portable mobile phone. He called his chief competitor at Bell Labs. The FCC ruled against Western Electric in 1974 in an effort to prevent them from becoming a monopoly. Progress came to a crashing halt. In 1975 AT&T adapted its own cellular plan for the city of Chicago. The FCC does not allow it to happen until 1977 (Keith, History, 2004). In 1984, cell phones were first commercially sold to the public. They were very large and very expensive, so we typically found only in the hands of the government or the wealthy (Smale & Smale, 2004). 1988 saw the creation of the Cellular Technology Industry Association, which helps to turn the industry into an empire. It helps the most evolved cell phone technology to date called TDMA, which becomes available to the public 1991 (Keith, History, 2004). This technology has come so far…so fast…that one wonders how much faster it could have progressed if not for the FCC’s interference. Back then, these researchers thought that they could develop a more ‘mobile’ phone by the use of small cells but The Federal Communications Commission would not free the airwaves – yet. AT&T wanted to develop the technology but FCC limited the frequencies. The development of cell phones had to be shelved. It was not until 1968 that the FCC reconsidered everything” (Fiset 2010).

It’s safe to say that there was no one seminal moment in the creation of the cell phone. It’s also safe to say that once man developed the means by which to send communications through the airwaves, that bright, entrepreneurial minds have been developing better and better ways of taking advantage of that ability. On March 10th 1986, Alexander Graham Bell made that first phone call to Mr. Watson and said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” Since then, the world fell in love with and grew dependent on the telephone…that the thought of disconnecting us from that copper phone line and enabling us to communicate wherever and whenever we desired was the dream of many. It was Marin Cooper himself who said it best: “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.”  (Author unknown 1)

But the cell phone wasn’t always the slick, little piece of technology that fits in a breast pocket; nor were we assured of uninterrupted phone calls; nor was the hardware or service so inexpensive; nor did it include such unlikely “extras” as text messaging, digital cameras, data downloads, video streaming or internet connectivity….all that developed over time. The first cell phone as an example, named the Dynatec by Mr. Cooper and his Motorola staff was big and bulky and expensive ($3500). It was made famous by Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street and it seemed like everyone who was anyone wanted to be just like Gekko. But the movies are not reality and the cost of these units would have to come down greatly in order to make them affordable to the masses. And it’s not likely that Mr. Gekko was able to find a “cell” from his beachfront property in the Hamptons. Cells were limited to large cities and dropped calls were extremely common. These issues would need to be addressed.

Mr. Cooper’s first cell phone call was tied into a base station on the roof of the Burlington Consolidated Tower in Manhattan. Motorola had no plan as to how to provide cell service to the masses and especially didn’t know how to allow users to travel out of range without dropping a call. Mr. Cooper’s primary competitor at the time was Joel Engel of Bell Labs. And although he’s not as famous as Mr. Cooper, today’s cell phones would not be possible without his efforts. Heck, they wouldn’t even be called cell phones! He was the first to develop the electronic components necessary for cellular technology which helped lead to cheaper manufacturing costs (Fiset 2010). He developed the first system that multiplied the capacity of each channel by 1,000. His system created small coverage areas called “cells”. A land-based network tracked 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). With Cooper/Motorola’s hardware and Engel/Bell lab’s technological advances the stage was set for mass marketing. And like most technology, advancements in technology allowed cell phones to get smaller and smaller. There was the 1989 Motorola MicroTAC, the first truly portable cell (flip) phone. Motorola engineers placed part of the phone’s hardware in a hinged section that could fold inward or outward as needed, thus reducing the phone’s size when it wasn’t in use (Benj, 2009). The first hand held digital cell phone, the Motorola 3200 introduced in1992. There’s the first PDA/phone combo introduced by Bell South/IBM in 1993. The Nokia 9000 were the first “smart phones” to include computer CPU’s. As always, once a market, or a potential market is identifies, you could count on the innovativeness of the entrepreneur to develop the means by which to make the technology smaller, cheaper, with more bells and whistles, and sleek.

The majority of the additional improvements developed within the cell phone technology would have to do with the resources allocated by the FCC as well improvements in each “generation” of cell phones. Phones made in the 90’s, or second generation (2G) cell phones included advancements such as digital circuit switched transmissions. This allowed quicker network signaling, less dropped calls and improved call quality. 2G digital online networks replaced analog network frequencies, making them obsolete. Phones based on 2G technology were much smaller than the brick telephones of the mid to late 80’s. Advances in battery technology, as well as computer chip technology helped make 2G cell phones much smaller than their predecessors. With these innovations, cell phone usage soared.

Third Generation  (3G) cellular phones is the technology that is currently available today.  3G phones have 2 megabits of maximum data rate indoors and 384 kbs for outdoor use. 3G mobile phones usually include innovations to receive much more than phone calls. SMS text is available as well as email and Internet access. 3G is also introducing technological innovations such as streaming radio and TV, and Wifi. The latest iphone is the best example of 3G technology (Author Unknown 6.

There is still no standard 4G technology that all providers can agree on. But certain providers, such as Sprint, are already offering it.  The goals of 4G include faster data transfer speeds; enhanced security measures; and reducing transmission “blips” (Lister, 2010). And you’ve probably seen the commercials already boasting its ability to speak on the phone AND surf the web at the same time.

The cell phone has been received most favorable by a worldwide market. There are currently more cell phones in the world than there are landlines. NYC had to add telephone exchanges in the 1980’s in order to keep up with the demand for new cell phone numbers. Consumer demand quickly outstripped the 1982 system standards. By 1987, cellular telephone subscribers exceeded one million and the airways were crowded (Bellis, 2010).

People of every age and socio-economic bracket demanded their own cell phone. 45 percent of American 12 to 17 year olds already say they have cell phones. And while some believe the cell phone keeps them from the more important face-to-face, Scott Campbell, assistant professor at the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, finds differently. “I think what it is doing is keeping them perpetually connected between face-to-face communications,” he says (Schorn, 2006).

The cell phone has become apart of our lives much the same way that radio, television, and the desktop computer did. We speak a great deal in this class about convergence. It would seem that the cell phone has made more strides along those lines than any other technology. While we debate whether or not it will be a PC-based television or a television based PC to lead the convergence race…the little cell phone already allows us to communicate verbally and via text messages and emails with anyone in the world; allows us to download music, data and video; streams video and is currently close to streaming live television broadcasts; and offers us the internet at our fingertips. If I have one problem at all with it, it’s the name! We’ve got to come up with something better for a technology that’s so much more than a phone.


Artist unknown 1. Michael Douglas. Photograph.


Artist unknown 2. The Evolution of Cell Phone Design Between 1983-2009.

Photography. May 22. http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/05/the-


Author unknown 1. Martin Cooper: History of Cell Phone. The New York Times

Company.http://inventors.about.com/cs/inventorsalphabet/a/martin_cooper.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.

Author Unknown 5. History Of A Cell Phone. Top Bits Technology Community. 2010.

http://www.topbits.com/history-of-cell-phones.html. April 10, 2010.

Bellis, Mary. Selling The Cell Phone- Part 1: History Of Cell Phones. The New York

Times Company. 2010. http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa070899.htm. April 10, 2010.

Benj, Edwards. Evolution Of The Cell Phone. PC World. October 4, 2009.

http://www.pcworld.com/article/173033/evolution_of_the_cell_phone.html. April 10, 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

Keith, Robert D.. A Wireless World. In The Name of Telephone The Cell Phone Is The

King. 2004. http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/projects/fall04/keith/poll.htm. April 10, 2010.

Keith, Robert D.. History Of the Cell Phone. In The Name of Telephone The Cell Phone

Is The King. 2004. http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/projects/fall04/keith/history1.htm. April 10, 2010.

Lister, John. What is 4g Mobile Technology? Wise Geek. April 8, 2010.

http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-4g-mobile-technology.htm. April 10, 2010

Schorn, Daniel. Cell Phones: Evolution Or Revolution? How Much Has Wireless

Technology Changed Teens? CBS News: New York. June 13, 2006. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/06/08/gentech/main1695676.shtml.

April 10, 2010

Smale, Craig & Smale, Stacy. Origin. Cell Phone History. 2004.

http://library.thinkquest.org/04oct/02001/origin.htm. April 10, 2010.


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