facebook icon facebook icon

Although half a century has passed since the launch of the first cell phone, its impact on modern society is still evident.

On April 3, 1973, Motorola engineer Martin Cooper announced the creation of the first cell phone, the DynaTAC, to the press in New York. The device, which weighed two kilograms and measured 23 centimeters, could facilitate talking for about 30 minutes and took nearly 10 hours to charge. Although the phone was desperately rudimentary compared to modern smartphones, its launch marked the beginning of an industry that is now ubiquitous.

The DynaTAC was the first step towards the creation of modern cell phones, which have evolved in size, capability and functions to become almost necessary devices in our daily lives. Today, an estimated 1.5 billion cell phones are sold each year.

The first cell phone was created by Motorola, a company that is now part of the Lenovo Group. The launch of the DynaTAC in 1973 allowed Motorola to get ahead of AT&T, which at the time was the dominant telecommunications giant in the United States. From that moment on, the cell phone industry expanded and ushered in a new era of communication and technology.

Although half a century has passed since the launch of the first cell phone, its impact on society is still evident. The ability to be connected at all times has changed the way we communicate and transformed the way we work, shop, learn and interact with others. The cell phone industry will continue to evolve and lead the way into the future of technology.

Three months to create the first portable, working phone, after 25 years of testing

Motorola’s DynaTAC was a milestone in the history of mobile telephony because, for the first time, it allowed users to make phone calls on the move without being attached to a vehicle or a heavy briefcase. Prior to its invention, phones required a cell-based connection to be mobile, which made them bulky and impractical.

Although AT&T had pioneered the development of mobile telephony, with devices installed in cars weighing more than 30 kilograms, its service was only available in large cities or highway corridors and was aimed primarily at businesses. The equipment occupied a large part of the trunk of the vehicle and subscribers made calls by speaking to a switchboard operator. In 1948, the service had 5,000 customers.

The need for military troops to communicate during World War II spurred the development of mobile wireless technologies, such as the SCR-536 Handie-Talkie, which was used by the U.S. Army. This device was a two-way radio small enough to hold in one hand and resembled a telephone.

Early cell phone services used a small number of large radio towers, which meant that all subscribers in a large city shared a central base station, which did not seem like a good idea for a universal cell phone service. Engineers at AT&T and Motorola worked on a concept to overcome this problem, but it took nearly three decades to get it right.

AT&T even had its first prototype before Motorola did, but scrapped the idea of bringing it to market because it was estimated that there would be only a market of 200,000 to 300,000 customers, making it unviable for a carrier. 


Cooper, the Motorola engineer, set to work on the DynaTAC and had it up and running in just three months. However, it would be another decade before it was available to the masses due to its high cost — clocking in at almost $4,000 at the time — as well as its short autonomy, needing almost 10 hours to charge for just a half-hour call.

The first cell phone cost $4,000

“I called and told him, ‘Joel, I’m calling you from a cellular phone, a real cellular phone, a handheld, portable, real cellular phone,’” Cooper said to his colleague and rival at AT&T.

Cooper said in a CNN interview that the call was very brief. “I don’t remember exactly what I said, but he was very quiet for a while. I assumed he was grinding his teeth. He was very polite and ended the call,” Cooper said.

While AT&T concentrated on business-focused car phones, Motorola was focused on creating lighter tools that would later be adapted easily for everyday consumers. They were inspired by a request from the Chicago police department, who needed a portable phone to talk to each other when patrolling the streets.

Motorola’s DynaTAC, the first commercial cell phone

It wasn’t until 1968 when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asked AT&T to submit a plan to use a portion of the UHF band to create a truly portable phone. AT&T proposed employing a cellular architecture to extend its service to all cell phones.

However, the situation became more tense when Motorola mobilized its contacts to prevent AT&T from having a monopoly on cellular telephony. It was then that Cooper was commissioned to develop the first real handheld phone. His vision for a personal wireless device was inspired by Star Trek and Captain James T. Kirk’s use of the communicator.

“We had a press conference [in 1973], and I handed the phone to this young lady journalist and told her to make a phone call. And she said, ‘Can I call my mother in Australia?’ and I said, ‘Sure!’ And she did that,” Copper recalled of that day.

Motorola executives were so enthusiastic about Cooper’s cell phone concept that they invested more than $100 million between 1973 and 1983, long before any monetary returns were realized.

In 1980, Motorola created a promotional video about the possibilities of personal cell phones.

Finally, on September 21, 1983, Motorola began marketing the world’s first cell phone. Most of the device’s bulk consisted of the battery, which weighed four or five times more than the phone itself. Later, movies like American Psycho and Wall Street would make that bulky, brick phone a status symbol and cultural icon.

What followed next was to adapt the existing small infrastructure, then used for car phones, to support cell phone calls.

Cooper told CNN that “the challenge was to create the network with the promise at the time that we only needed three megahertz of spectrum, the equivalent of five TV channels, to cover the whole world.”

From brick to smartphone: the evolution of mobile technology

One thing Cooper didn’t see coming was the addition of apps and cameras, not to mention touchscreen technology. “I have to tell you, as dreamers as we were, we never imagined that all these things could be combined into one,” he commented in reference to smartphones.

Cooper, now 93, recounts that his dream of everyone having access to their own cell phone has exceeded his wildest expectations.

“In fact, we had a joke that, in the future, when you were born, you would be assigned a phone number and, if you didn’t answer, you were dead,” he quipped.

This article was originally published by Stiven Cartagena


facebook icon facebook icon
You may also like