The 1947 Paper That First Described a Cell-Phone Network

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In 1947, the same year that the transistor was invented and 40 years before there were a million American cell-phone subscribers, an engineer at Bell Labs sketched out the rough design for a standard cellular phone network. In just eight pages of body text, D.H. (Doug) Ring laid the intellectual groundwork for what is our most widespread digital information technology. Ring was thinking about car phones and it took a long time for technology to catch up to the vision, but the basics are there.

"In this memorandum it is postulated that an adequate mobile radio system should provide service to any equipped vehicle at any point in the whole country," Ring wrote. "Some of the features resulting from this conception of the problem are discussed along with reference to a rather obvious plan for providing such service. 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."

Indeed, this paper was just a Bell Labs technical memorandum, one of many thousands. It was never published outside the laboratory.

It's worth noting that Ring was not quite the very first person to imagine a cell network. That honor goes to another Bell engineer, W.R. Young, who Ring says "pointed out ... the best general arrangement for the minimum interference and with a minimum number of frequencies is a hexagonal layout in which each station is surrounded by six equidistant stations." But he was the first to put ink on paper and describe the consequences of the system.

The complete paper is presented for your perusal below with thanks to Alcatel-Lucent, which inherited the intellectual heritage of Bell Labs.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls 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 Web site 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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