- Written by Zoe Kleinman
- Technology Editor
On April 3, 1973, Marty Cooper stood at the corner of Sixth Avenue in New York and took a phone book from his pocket.
He then punched a number into a large cream-colored device and placed it in his ear as bystanders stared at him.
Cooper, an engineer at Motorola, called his counterpart at rival Bell Laboratories to tell him triumphantly that he was calling from a “personal handheld cell phone.”
He remembers that there was silence at the end of the line.
“I think he was gritting his teeth,” the 94-year-old says with a laugh.
Bell Labs has been focusing on developing a car-based phone instead, he says. “Can you believe it? We’ve been trapped in our homes and offices by this copper wire for over 100 years – and now they’re going to trap us in our cars!”
Needless to say, Cooper and Motorola didn’t agree this was the way forward — and history has proven them right.
The basics of how first call works haven’t changed much. The phone converts your voice into an electrical signal, which modulates the radio wave. the radio wave goes to the mast; The mast sends your voice to the person you’re calling, and by reversing the process, that person can then hear you speak.
Except there weren’t a lot of masts around back then…but you get the idea.
However, today’s cell phones are unrecognizable when compared to the old Motorola model.
The commercial version of Marty Cooper’s prototype, the Motorola Dynatac 8000X, was released 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 Mobile Museum.
“Basically, it was just a matter of dialing the number and making the call,” Wood explains.
“There were no messages, no camera. Thirty minutes of talk time, 10 hours of battery charging, about 12 hours of standby time, and a 6-inch (15 cm) antenna on top.”
It also weighs 790g (1.7lbs) – nearly four times the weight of the iPhone 14, at 172g.
Still, Cooper remains unimpressed by the design of 2023 cellphones — though he admits he never foresaw phones one day being handheld “supercomputers,” with cameras and Internet access.
“I think today’s phone is suboptimal,” he says. “It’s really not a very good phone in many ways.”
“Just think about it. You take a flat piece of plastic and glass—and you put it on the curve of your head; you put your hand in an uncomfortable position; when you want to do these cool things it can do, you have to get an app.” [first]. “
He believes that in the future, AI will either create or select apps for phone owners, depending on their individual needs.
He also believes that one day the device will monitor our health, increase our productivity, and improve our lives immeasurably.
He even suggested at one point that they might help end wars.
“A cell phone won’t do it on its own,” he admits. But he will be the central part of this great future.
Despite his complaints about his modern counterparts, it seems, secretly, that Mr. Cooper is still fascinated by the device he first held in his ear on a New York street corner 50 years ago.
“We are still at the beginning of the mobile revolution,” he declares.
“Freelance web ninja. Wannabe communicator. Amateur tv aficionado. Twitter practitioner. Extreme music evangelist. Internet fanatic.”