- By Zoe Kleinman
- technology writer
1 hour before
On April 3, 1973, Marty Cooper stood on a corner of Sixth Avenue in New York and took a phone book out of his pocket.
He then dialed a number on a large cream-colored device and held it to his ear as passers-by stared.
Cooper, a Motorola engineer, called his counterpart at rival Bell Laboratories to tell him triumphantly that he was calling from “a personal, handheld, portable cell phone.”
Remember that there was silence at the end of the line.
“I think I was clenching my teeth,” the 94-year-old laughs.
Bell Laboratories had been focused on developing a car phone, he says. “Can you believe that? So we had been trapped in our homes and offices by this copper wire for over 100 years, and now they were going to trap us in our cars!”
Needless to say, Cooper and Motorola disagreed that this was the way to go, and history has proven them right.
The basics of how that first call worked haven’t changed much. The phone converts your voice into an electrical signal, which modulates a radio wave. The radio wave goes to a mast; the mast sends your voice to the person you are calling, and by reversing the process, that person can hear you speak.
Except there really weren’t that many masts back then… But you get the idea.
Today’s mobile phones, however, are unrecognizable compared to Motorola’s first model.
The commercial version of Marty Cooper’s prototype, the Motorola Dynatac 8000X, launched 11 years after that first call, in 1984. It would cost the equivalent of £9,500 ($11,700) if bought today, says Ben Wood, who runs the mobile phone museum.
“Basically, it was just dialing the number and making the call,” explains Mr. Wood.
“There were no messages, no camera. Thirty minutes of talk time, 10 hours to charge the battery, about 12 hours on standby, and a 6-inch (15 cm) antenna on top.”
It also weighed 790g (1.7lbs), almost four times the weight of the iPhone 14, at 172g.
However, Cooper is not impressed with the design of the 2023 phones, though he acknowledges that he never predicted that phones would one day be portable “supercomputers,” complete with cameras and Internet access.
“I think today’s phone is suboptimal. It’s really not a very good phone in many ways,” he says.
“Just think about it. You take a piece of plastic and glass that’s flat, and you put it against the curve of your head; you hold your hand in an awkward position; when you want to do these wonderful things that it can do, you have to get an app (first ).”
He believes that in the future, artificial intelligence will create or select phone owners’ apps for them, based on their individual needs.
He also believes that one day the device will monitor our health, maximize our productivity, and immeasurably improve our lives.
At one point he even suggests that they could help eliminate wars.
“The cell phone is not going to do it alone,” he admits. “But it will be the central part of this great future.”
Despite his complaints about his modern counterparts, Cooper apparently remains secretly captivated by the device he first held to his ear on that New York street corner 50 years ago.
“We are still at the beginning of the cell phone revolution,” he declares.