Martin Cooper made the first public call from a cell phone on April 3, 1973. He stood on the sidewalk of Sixth Avenue in Manhattan with a device the size of a brick and called one of the men he had been competing with to make the device.
“I’m calling you on a cell phone, but a real cell phone, a personal, handheld, portable cell phone,” Cooper, who was an engineer at Motorola at the time, told Joel Engel, the head of AT&T-owned Bell Labs, over the phone.
Even though most people wouldn’t get cell phones for another ten years, anyone walking by Cooper on the street that day could have seen history being made.
In the fifty years since that first phone call, Cooper’s big device has changed and been replaced by a wide range of thinner, faster phones that are now everywhere and changing industries, culture, and the way we relate to each other and to ourselves.
Some people may have been surprised by how far-reaching and important cell phones are, but Cooper said it was clear from the beginning that mobile phones could become important to a lot of people.
Cooper, who is now 94 years old, told CNN, “I wasn’t surprised that everyone has a cell phone.” “Back then, we used to say that when you were born, you would be given a phone number. You would die if you didn’t answer the phone.”
The Rise of The Cell Phone
Before that first call, Motorola was in a race with AT&T’s famous research arm, Bell Labs, to make the first cell phone. Bell Labs was the place where the transistor and other important inventions were made.
Cooper remembered, “They were the biggest company in the world, and we were a small company in Chicago.” “They didn’t think we were that important,” she said.
According to what he remembers, his rival wasn’t as happy to get the call as Cooper was to call him.
“It was clear that I didn’t mind giving him a hard time about this. Cooper told CNN, “He was nice to me.” “Joel doesn’t remember that phone call to this day, and I can’t say I blame him.” CNN couldn’t get in touch with Engel.
After Cooper’s first call, problems with making the phone and rules from the government slowed down the process of getting it to the public, he said.
For example, Cooper remembers how hard it was for the Federal Communications Commission, where he now works as an advisor, to figure out how to divide radio channels to make sure there was competition.
A $3,900 version of that DynaTAC (Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) phone wouldn’t be available for 10 years. The phone was about a foot tall and weighed 2.5 pounds. It looked like the one Gordon Gekko used in the movie “Wall Street.”
Compare that to the iPhone 14, which is 6 ounces and just under 6 inches long, or to any number of $200-$300 Android budget smartphones.
“Trying to Improve the Human Experience”
The modern cell phone didn’t really take off until the 1990s, when it got much smaller and easier to use. A 2021 study by the Pew Research Center found that 97% of Americans have some kind of cell phone.
Since that first call, Cooper has written a book about how the cell phone can change people’s lives, started companies, gone on speaking tours, and been in the news. But he doesn’t always like everything that new technology brings.
“Too many engineers get caught up in what they call technology and the gadgets and hardware, and they forget that the whole point of technology is to make people’s lives better,” said Cooper. “People keep forgetting that, so I have to keep bringing it up. We are trying to make life better for people. That’s the whole point of technology.”
Cooper, on the other hand, is mostly happy with where the phone has led us in the past 50 years. He has an iPhone and used to have a Samsung.
He loves to use his Apple Watch to track how much he swims and to connect his hearing aids to his phone. Cooper also said that he thinks the progress of technology is good for society as a whole.
“I’m a hopeful person. I know that there are some bad things about cell phones. There are people who get hooked on it. Cooper said, “There are people walking across the street while talking on their cell phones.” “I think the cell phone has made people better as a whole, and I think that will continue in the future.”