A Brief History of Cell Phones

Bell System Mobile Telephone System car phone.

Photo Credit to Business Insider

Bell System Mobile Telephone System car phone.

The world today is run by computers, and people are run by cell phones. Every year, millions of smartphones are sold to the masses, and most people cannot be bothered to part from theirs. It is almost impossible to imagine how life was before technology. Even within the last decade there has been a polar shift in mobile technology and its use, and even yet, it is still in its infancy.

Photo Credit to Business Insider
SCR 194 Portable Radio.

In 1938 the U.S. Army designed SCR-194 and 195, backpack-esq portable AM radios for use by infantry during WWII. The radios were the first real portable, two way communication devices, and set the stage for mobile phones. These two radios, however, only had a five mile range. Two years later, Motorola produced the SCR-300  which replaced the 194 and 195. In 1942 Motorola released a boxy, handheld walkie talkie, also for use in the war, which is perhaps the most clear predecessor to mobile phones.

In 1947 AT&T Bell Labs engineer Dough Ring began to sketch out what became the groundwork of modern cell phones. Previously, AT&T had marketed a mobile phone, but could not make it feasible. Ring suggested that the company, instead of covering a large area with a single service, break the area into smaller, more manageable ‘cells’. He was working on a model which would soon become the basis for the first real, practical mobile phones. In his paper, Ring wrote, “The plan which is outlined briefly is not proposed as the best solution resulting from exhaustive study, but rather is presented as a point of departure for discussion and comparison of alternative suggestions which may be made.” Even though this paper was not published until many years later, it proved to be the spark that began the gears of progress.

Soon the infrastructure for the technology was established, and before long it became a very popular concept, and AT&T began to release the improved car phones. However, they still had many limitations, and it was a flawed system. The system could only handle a limited number of requests at a time, and some users would have to wait half an hour to even try to place a call. In some cases, those that joined the trend late in the game were put on waiting lists spanning years.

Clearly this did not work, but with the idea a clear hit, no one was willing to give up. In 1973, Engineer Martin Cooper of Motorola Inc. found the solution. The DynaTAC 8000X was the first portable phone that did not require a car to function. After ten more years of development, and construction of the cellular network demanded by the product, Motorola released the phone to the public. It became prevalent amongst city workers where the cellular networks were initially deployed. Still, the phone was not entirely practical for most people. It took 10 hours to charge, and this charge only lasted for about a half an hour. Many people would not even be able to experience this, however, as the device had a price tag of $3,995, or about $10,000 in today’s value.

This phone, and many subsequent phones, used the first generation Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS), which allowed more calls to be placed, and more phones to be used, than the previous car phone systems. This service has been consistently improving into the digital services used today that have little to no service shortcomings, in theory, and allow millions of users at once.

Flip phones began to appear in the late eighties and early nineties, and were marketed by General Telephones and Electrics as well as Motorola. Slowly, other manufacturers began to adopt the clamshell design, and the design was carried over into other electronics.

Then, in 1992, the world got a preview of the future of mobile devices. That year, IBM released the IBM Simon, which was the first phone similar to a smartphone. According to Microsoft, the “Simon was a combination cellular phone/PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) that included an x86-compatible CPU, a fax modem, a PCMCIA Type II PC Card slot, 11 built-in programs, and a 4 1/2- by 1 1/2-inch touchsensitive LCD screen”. This blocky phone -beginning to resemble what we know today- cost only $1,009.

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Nokia’s 7110

In 1999, mobile devices took a trip back to their roots, and also a leap into their future, with Nokia’s 7110. The phone, resembling a walkie talkie, incorporated a scaled-down, text-based web browser, a major step in mobile technology, and something that, without its advent, would make modern phones unrecognizable. Later that year, GeoSentric released the Benefon Esc, which included an onboard GPS system.

In 2002, the Danger Hiptop -later branded as the T-Mobile Sidekick- released, and was the first phone to have full access to the internet. It also introduced instant messaging. Then Microsoft released the Pocket PC Phone, which included as scaled down Windows operating system (at the time it was Windows XP), and became an instant hit.

Then, in 2007. It was the moment the world didn’t know it needed, the invention that changed society forever. Steve Jobs announced the Apple iPhone, the first smartphone to capture the proper touch screen interface.

And from there, the rest -as they say- is history. Cell phones have turned from simple, war time radios into perhaps the most used electronic device in the world. Their effect has influenced everything from how society communicates, to how information is accessed. They have made life far easier for many people, and opened the world in a way never before imagined. Now, designers are looking to the future, with plans to literally connect people to their phones; according to the World Economic Forum, phone implants will be a thing within the decade.