The Father of the Cell Phone on the Future of His Offspring

At a moment when it seemed like the San Diego Chargers still had a chance to win Sunday’s NFL playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, my daughter’s cell phone issued a high-pitched “beep-beep-beep.” Some guy named “Rio” in Pittsburgh sent a photo of a black Steelers helmet to her cell phone. The image was accompanied by an audio clip from a key scene in the movie “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” in which Will Ferrell’s anchorman concludes a newscast by reading aloud an epithet addressed to San Diego. The “f” word epithet.

This vignette came to mind while I was driving to the Del Mar office of Martin Cooper, who started the long march of innovation that has made such mobile wizardry possible.

Cooper is the inventor named on U.S. patent 3906166 for a “Radio telephone system.” He is known as the father of the cell phone, the inventor of the first portable wireless handset, and the first person to make a call on a portable cell phone—on April 3, 1973, from a street in New York City. At the time, he was working as a general manager in the communications systems division of a company called Motorola.

“They made car radios, that’s where the name came from,” Cooper told me after we sat down to talk. “The company was founded in Chicago in 1928. I remember that particular date because that’s the same year I was born.”

Cooper, who turned 80 last week, says journalists always ask about that first cell phone call. Their fascination with the call puzzles him a bit; he finds the technology and the corporate strategy more compelling. Yet he concedes the call was almost as significant a milestone as … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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