On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper stood on a sidewalk on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan with a device the size of a brick and made the first public call from a cell phone to one of the men he had been competing with for develop the device. .
“I’m calling you on a cell phone, but a real cell phone, a personal, handheld, portable cell phone,” Cooper, then a Motorola engineer, said by phone to Joel Engel, director of AT&T-owned Bell Labs. .
While cell phones wouldn’t be available to the average consumer for another decade, anyone passing Cooper on the street that day could have seen history being made.
In the fifty years since that first call, Cooper’s bulky device has evolved and been replaced by a wide range of thinner, faster phones that are now ubiquitous and are reshaping industries, culture, and the way we interact with each other. between us and with ourselves. But while the sheer reach and impact of cell phones may have caught some off guard, Cooper said the possibility that cell phones might one day be considered essential to much of humanity was clear from the start.
“It didn’t surprise me that everyone has a cell phone,” Cooper, now 94, told CNN. “We used to tell the story that one day, when you were born, you would be assigned a phone number. If you didn’t answer the phone, you would die.”
For months before that first call, Motorola was racing to build a cell phone against Bell Labs, the legendary AT&T research arm that had developed the transistor and other innovations.
“They were the biggest company in the world and we were a small company in Chicago,” Cooper recalled. “They just didn’t think we were very important.”
As he recalls it, his rival was not as excited to receive the call as Cooper was to call him.
“You could tell he wasn’t averse to rubbing his nose with this thing. He was polite to me,” Cooper told CNN. “To this day, Joel doesn’t remember that phone call, and I guess I don’t blame him.” (CNN was unable to reach Engel.)
After Cooper’s first call, manufacturing issues and government regulation slowed progress in bringing the phone to the public, he said. For example, Cooper recalls the Federal Communications Commission, an agency for which he now serves as an adviser, struggling to figure out how to divide up radio channels to ensure competition.
It would take a decade for a DynaTAC (Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) version of that phone to hit the market, for $3,900. The phone, similar to the one wielded by Gordon Gekko in the movie “Wall Street,” weighed 2.5 pounds and stood about a foot tall.
Compare that to the iPhone 14, which weighs 6 ounces and is just under six inches, or any number of budget Android smartphones that cost between $200 and $300.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the modern cell phone really took off, as it got much smaller in size and much easier to use. Today, 97% of Americans own some type of cell phone, according to a study 2021 by the Pew Research Center.
In the years since that first call, Cooper has written a book on the transformative power of the cell phone, built companies, and gone on speaking tours and media appearances. But it does not necessarily cover all aspects of modern technological advances.
“Too many engineers are wrapped up in what they call technology and gadgets, hardware, and they forget that the purpose of technology is to improve people’s lives,” Cooper said. “People forget that, and I have to keep reminding them. We are trying to improve the human experience. That’s what technology is all about.”
Looking back over the last 50 years, however, Cooper largely approves of where the phone has taken us. As an iPhone user (and a Samsung user before that), he loves using his Apple Watch to track his swimming activity and connecting his headphones to his phone. And Cooper said that he sees the advancement of technology as something positive for society.
“I am optimistic. I know there are downsides to the cell phone. We have people who become addicted. We have people walking across the street talking on their cell phones,” Cooper said. “Overall, I think the cell phone has changed humanity for the better and that will continue into the future.”