It was a spring day much like this one when Martin Cooper used his Motorola DynaTAC cell phone prototype to place a call in downtown Manhattan. The year was 1973 and it was the third day of April. The call lasted about 20 minutes and much like today's users, Mr. Cooper suffered a familiar problem -- a drained battery.
The first phone call -- 40 years ago today
Mr. Cooper recalls, "The first cell phone model weighed over one kilo and you could only talk for 20 minutes before the battery ran out. Which is just as well because you would not be able to hold it up for much longer."
A fun fact about the call -- as told in a story by The Verge last year -- the famous first call was actually placed to Mr. Cooper's archrival Joel Engel from Bell Systems. Mr. Engel headed a team that was competing with Mr. Cooper's team at Motorola. But it was Mr. Cooper's team that perfected cellular technology first, thus ultimately shaping the industry that emerged over the next decade. Mr. Cooper recalls, "I have to tell you, to this day, he resents what Motorola did in those days."
Motorola Vice President John F. Mitchell shows off the DynaTAC portable radio telephone to reporters in New York City in 1973.
The achievement was publicized in this 1973 press release that Motorola Mobility's archivists recently dug up. (Motorola also unearthed a fun media fact sheet on the DynaTAC prototype.)
Mr. Cooper and his rival had big dreams for cellular technology, but even these dreamers likely would never imagine the monstrous market force they had created.
Starting at $10K, Phone Captivated Electronics Fans in the 1980s
Things started slow. It took Motorola a decade more to bring its working prototype to market. One major roadblock was in removing interference concerns. But the U.S. Federal Communications Commission eventually determined the device -- the Motorola 8000X -- was safe enough to use without interfering with vital defense or airplane signals, allowing the world's first cell phone to hit the market in September, 1983.
The device was priced at a lofty $3,995 USD (around $10K USD in today's money), but nonetheless soon became a pop culture icon, embraced by trend setters and business elite. Shows like Saved the Bell helped popularize the device.
That pop culture appeal drove Motorola and its rivals to embark on a tireless path of miniaturization and innovation, a road which would eventually combine the personal computer, digital camera, and cell phone into a single device -- the smartphone.
Enter the smartphone
Forty years later, the cell phone industry is estimated to take in $1.2T USD in revenue for service, apps, and devices, according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology. The mobile phone market is today the lifeblood of technology juggernauts such as Samsung and Apple. Samsung alone hopes to ship 390 million smartphones this year.
Today, cell phones are an integral part of modern life -- both a blessing and a curse that most people over 13 can't live without. They're our connection to our family, our connection to our boss, our connection to our friends.
Last year, Google makers of Android -- the world's most used smartphone operating system -- finished an acquisition of Motorola Mobility. And while sales of Motorola branded devices appear to be fading into the sunset, the company's inventions will no doubt play a key role both defending Google against lawsuits and in inspiring new ideas: in short, Google has directly inherited Motorola's mantle as leader of the cellular industry.
As for Mr. Cooper, he's still loyally buying Motorola. He buys a phone every six months -- last year he was sporting a Motorola Droid RAZR. He told The Verge,
"I'm being sorely tested lately because the phones are coming out so fast. Each time they get a little better, and I think they're pretty much on a par now — if you know how to use them — with the iPhone."
And he's still very much involved in the industry. He runs the mobile incubator project Dyna LLC, whose name itself pays homage to Mr. Cooper's famous prototype.
Here's an interesting thought to leave you with. Looking at the evolution of the phone in the last forty years...
...one surely must wonder what wonderous devices we'll have at the eightieth anniversary, in 2053.
What new functions will be merged into this ever expanding Swiss Army knife of the gadget world? Only time will tell.