The first cell phone call was made from the streets of New York City in 1973 (how appropriate). The caller was Martin Cooper of Motorola. He used his new invention to call a rival inventor at Bell Labs who was racing to be first with his own cell phone.
Exciting Press Conference
Following Cooper’s early call to his rival, Motorola set up a press conference to introduce Cooper’s new invention. The press was invited to the New York Hilton Hotel on April 3, 1973. Martin Cooper was to demonstrate the new “wire-less” telephone by making the first call.
Cooper must have felt the pressure. He accidentally dialed a wrong number with his first call. He pulled off the gaffe with a joke: “Our new phone can’t eliminate that, computer or not.” (New York Times, April 4, 1973.)
The reporters then took turns using the new phone to call their own newspaper offices. Press reports of the day stated that Motorola was applying to the FCC for authorization to create a network that might be operable by 1976. (The necessary approvals did not come through until 1983.)
Early Phones Were Large
The Motorola phone was a far cry from the units sold today. The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X (what Cooper introduced) was the first cell phone brought to market. It looked like a good-sized handset for a regular phone and weighed 28 ounces – a bit less than two pounds. Imagine holding that to your ear, or putting it in your pocket.
Early cell phones were not only heavy, but they were very expensive. The 8000X cost almost $4,000. Battery life of the unit was about an hour. After one hour of use, the phone then required ten hours of charging time before it could be used again.
Radio Phones Preceded New Wireless Phones
These portable phones were preceded by radio telephones that were introduced as early as the 1940s. Most radio phones were closed-system units generally used in emergency vehicles. (A few radio phones were in private automobiles of the wealthy.)
But until 1990 most wireless phones were referred to as “car phones.” While early cell phones certainly provided mobile calling, their size and weight meant they were more practical when placed in a car. A few briefcase models were sold.)
By the late 1980s phones were getting smaller.
Though Martin Cooper and Motorola may get credit for the first cell phone to be put in use, scientists at Bell Labs were very busy accomplishing their own “firsts.”
The first cell phones only worked in a limited one-cell area. The distance could vary somewhat but was never more than 20 km. Bell Labs were at work on cell phone towers. This would permit cell phone calls to be handed off from cell zone to cell zone. Today a call placed from a car on the highway usually continues quite smoothly, but only a few years ago, drivers experienced enough dropped calls to be reminded of the challenges of this tower-to-tower hand-off.
Changes in Phone Systems
When it comes to changes in telephone customs, two-pound cell phones are only the beginning. Many adults can remember rotary dials, party lines, and seven-digit telephone numbers where the exchange was identified by a name, such as Butterfield 8 or Lincoln 4.
For another story about communication advances, read about Granville Woods and how he made it possible to be in voice communication with moving trains.