8 Guys, 6 Weeks: How the Cell Phone Was (Finally) Invented

"We've got to build a portable cell phone."
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The first call publicly conducted on a cellular telephone was made for two reasons: show, and spite. Dr. Martin Cooper and a design team at Motorola had just developed a prototype for the device that would go on to transform the way humans communicate. So Cooper, to celebrate the achievement, took part in a tradition that was itself fittingly human: He gloated. Publicly. 

The 'Dazzling' Demo

On April 3, 1973 -- 40 years ago today -- Cooper took an early model of Motorola's DynaTAC phone (a brick phone weighing 2.5 pounds, measuring 9 inches long and 5 inches deep, and featuring about 20 minutes of battery life) to the streets of New York City. He pressed the phone's "off hook" button. And he made a call to the land line of Bell Labs, where he was connected to his counterpart, and chief rival, Joel Engel. "Joel, this is Marty," Cooper said, gleefully. "I'm calling you from a cell phone, a real handheld portable cell phone."

Cooper, in doing all this, made quite a scene. Telephones, at that point, were not things you could just carry around with you as you walked. (Cooper liked to joke that the DynaTAC's limited talk time wasn't technically a problem -- since "you couldn't hold that phone up for that long.") So a guy strolling around near Radio City Music Hall, talking animatedly into a large hunk of plastic, was a spectacle. Even for a city that was used to spectacles. "As I walked down the street while talking on the phone," Cooper would later recall, "sophisticated New Yorkers gaped at the sight of someone actually moving around while making a phone call." 

And that, of course, was the point. "We wanted to do a dazzling demonstration," Cooper said. The team's goal wasn't just to invent something; it was to let the world know, in as striking a way as possible, that the something had been invented. The demo would end, appropriately, with the technologist processing to the Midtown Hilton, where a gaggle of reporters was assembled for a press conference. Cooper would hand his phone to one of those reporters so she could call her mother in Australia.

Cooper, in other words, enjoyed -- and exploited -- the moment. "I made numerous calls," he remembered, "including one where I crossed the street while talking to a New York radio reporter -- probably one of the more dangerous things I have ever done in my life."

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Martin Cooper, holding a model of the DynaTAC, accepts a special achievement award during the 15th annual Webby Awards in June 2011. (Reuters)

'What the Hell's a Portable Cell Phone?'

The technology that fueled Cooper's demo had been in the works, of course, long before Cooper strode out onto 6th Avenue. (Cooper knew the phone would work because, on a trip to Washington, he had previously demonstrated the technology for the group that was arguably his most important audience: the FCC.) The cell phone was the culmination of a good, old-fashioned race to invention, much like the one that led to the telephone itself. And it was spurred along not only by competition among R&D departments at rival corporations, but also by a broad sense of technological progress -- progress that would be inevitable if only consumer hardware could catch up to it. As early as 1947, engineers at Bell Labs had imagined the standard cellular network. By the 1970s, car phones -- the original mobile phones -- were in regular, if not widespread, use. Human-centered mobile phones, Cooper thought, were the next obvious step in telephony's evolution. 

But that wasn't obvious to everyone. The Federal Communications Commission, at the time, was deliberating whether to allow AT&T to set up a network that would provide wireless phone service in local markets, ostensibly for use with car phones. Not only, Cooper knew, would this proposal give AT&T an effective monopoly in those markets; it would also mean that car phones, rather than hand-held, would likely become the dominant mobile technology. Cooper and his colleagues saw where things might be heading -- so they decided to intervene. They charted a new destination, and then set their sights on leading the way there. But they had to hurry.

Rudy Krolopp, lead designer of the device that would become the DynaTAC, recalled the frantic weeks that led, finally, to the cell phone. "Marty called me to his office one day in December 1972 and said, 'We've got to build a portable cell phone,'" Krolopp says. "And I said, 'What the hell's a portable cell phone?'"

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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