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 that moment in 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell shouted, “Mr. Watson-come here-I want to see you.”

To Cooper, the event was significant because he placed the first cell phone call to Dr. Joel Engell, the head of research at AT&T’s Bell Labs. Cooper’s call was intended as a gibe, in the grand tradition of U.S. upstarts, and it was aimed at the guy who was running a huge R&D program for what was then the largest company in the world. The young turks from Motorola were questioning what was then AT&T’s monopoly in communications, Cooper says, but what they really wanted to challenge was AT&T insistence that cellular phones be developed only for use in automobiles.

Martin Cooper in New York, 1973

Martin Cooper in New York, 1973

After dialing Engell’s phone number on the 2.5-pound Motorola Dyna-Tac (a beige phone that resembled a handheld Motorola walkie-talkie from World War II) Cooper recalls saying: “Joel, I’m calling you from a cellular phone. But it’s a real cellular phone. It’s not in a car.”
To Engell, the call made that day also might count as the world’s first wireless prank call. Cooper says he’s had several conversations with Engell since then—“and he doesn’t remember a thing about it.”

It has been almost 36 years since then, and Cooper’s vision of a personal and portable mobile phone has been realized. Cooper guided much of the development himself in the 29 years he spent at Motorola, ultimately heading all research and development for the company.
As for all the advances that make it possible to transmit video and download songs onto cell phones, Cooper says, “We’re just scratching the surface.”

“There are 3 billion people on this planet who have cell phones and all almost all of them do is talk,” Cooper said. “Some small subset of them do text messaging and the number that downloads songs and do online navigation is infinitesimal.” Apple has sold about 12 million iPhones, but Marty Cooper is not impressed. He says, “I don’t know how you put a yawn down on a piece of paper.”

Cooper anticipates the advent of Google’s Android operating system will accelerate a wireless revolution in the development of “open access” wireless networks. Just as anyone can connect a device running any type of operating system to the Internet, Cooper sees a future in which any type of wireless device that uses any type of operating system will be able to connect to any wireless network. “In order for that to happen, the carriers have to open up their networks, and it’s a major challenge to do that.”

Whatever happens next, the vision that Cooper embraced almost 36 years ago has made it possible for guys like Rio in Pittsburgh to use wireless technology to embellish his NFL trash talk. My daughter loved it.

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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