Why Your Cell Phone Looks Like It Does

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In this concise video, the Engineer Guy, aka Bill Hammack of the University of Illinois, leads us through the seven design constraints that have shaped the modern cell phone. Lurking inside this lesson, though, is a more general explanation of the ways that engineers think. Here are Hammack's seven constraints:

  1. Compactness versus usability
  2. Consumer preferences
  3. Availability of energy
  4. Economic resources/availability of infrastructure
  5. Knowledge of materials
  6. Societal needs
  7. Cultural constraints

There are two really interesting nuggets in the video. First, cell phones have shrunk not just because of better battery and chip technology, but also because cell phone networks are more powerful now. That allows each individual phone to do less work receiving signals and computing. Second, plastics enable smaller cell phones. He notes that the cases of phones with removable batteries can usually be "snapped" into and out of place. The snap is a property of the plastic and knowing its precise reactions allows engineers to remove a bulky real clasp (like the kind on a lunch pail, say).

In short, I'm a sucker for a good explainer, and this one fits the bill.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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