On April 3, 1973 Martin Cooper of Motorola made the first ever call on the first ever truly portable telephone. But it wasn't until ten years later, in 1983, that Motorola sold its cellular phones commercially—and at $3,500, well, some might call that prohibitively expensive, even and especially adjusted for inflation. So it wasn't really until the cell phone's rebellious '90s phase that it really went mass market; mobile communications reached a "tipping point" with 46 percent penetration around 1999. It was in and around and just before that time that much of The Atlantic Wire staff got its hands on Cell Phone No. 1. In honor of today's 40th anniversary, we take a collective—and very fond, if clunky, and sometimes fuzzy—look back:
"I bought it because they claimed it was the world's thinnest cell phone." In those early days of mass-market mobile, thin mattered, especially to our Dashiell Bennett, who owned one of those Zack Morris phones with a name he can't remember. After much ridicule from his friend, Dash went to the other extreme, opting for this Sanyo: "America's Thinnest Phone Yet!" He remembers the antenna breaking—"like three times!" Even as flip-phones gained in popularity, for a while smaller meant better. Or more than that, what with all your friends competing: "In my early conception of cell phones, the smaller the cooler," remembers Esther Zuckerman, who got herself a pink RAZR early on. "I put stickers on it. I loved it."
The Family Cell Phone For some of our staff, early cell phones were something of a collective luxury. "I think my first cell phone was one my family shared for car rides," remembers J.K. Trotter. In addition, many of us convinced our parents to let us have our own phones for "safety reasons." Matt Sullivan's folks got him a beeper and a cell phone when he went off to a "big-bad fancy all-boys private middle school," even if two devices ended up cheaper than one his early family Verizon bill: "My mom was freaking out that I'd run off down Park Avenue somewhere." I convinced my parents to get me a phone for a spring break trip to visit my brother in college while I was still in high school. The phone, arguably, would keep me safe from all that evil partying. (My parents had no problem sending me off for a weekend of college partying. The cell phone was the issue.)
Lusting for the Nokia Brick... Almost all of the Wire staffers had one of these early Nokia phones, which were the "cool" gadget at the time—despite its size. "I lusted after my friend Ashley's Nokia in high school," says Elspeth Reeve. "It was like the size of a clutch purse. But you could change the cover to like pink crystals or alien heads, or whatever." Jen Doll's friends called hers the "Brick," a name that proliferated beyond the streets of Georgetown University. Most people fondly remember using their phones for something other than communicating. The "snake game" was a "key feature" for Trotter. Philip Bump bought his because he read a Wired article about "some guy pulling up scores at a bar," which to him "sounded cool." Doll sometimes thought of hers "as more a weapon than a communications device."
...and Getting a Nokia Rip-Offs Instead While all the cool kids had the Nokia brick, some of us had the knock-off version. My parents would only let me get the free phone included with a brand-new (and what would become life-long) Verizon contract, so I got a Kyocera version of the little guy. Even though it didn't have Snake, it still reached a certain bar of cool, as my fellow one-time Kyocera owner and colleague Zuckerman confirms: "I just remember I really wanted a really tiny non-flip phone for my first phone," she recalls. It's unclear why, exactly, these open-faced phones trumped the more compact, more protected ones earlier on. It probably had something to do with the "snake game" and the fact that those black Motorola StarTACs were regarded as parent phones.
The RAZR and Its Flip-Phone Clones "The RAZR was a huuuuuuuge deal," notes Connor Simpson, who did not have the shiny, slim Motorola device, but a lesser flip-phone. It was the first gadget that understood a cell phone's capability as both a fashion accessory and status symbol. "The rich kids had the Motorola Razr. Maybe a Nokia. But mostly Razrs," adds Sullivan, who had neither. While the knock-offs lacked all the style and finesse of Motorola's condensed bundle, they tried. "LG (or whichever company, maybe Motorola) tried really hard to make it look like the phone was made out of metal, with like, painted plastic," notes Trotter when remember his first very own cell phone, an unmemorable LG product. In other words: It was no RAZR.
Just about a year and a half ago, a good chunk of the Atlantic Wire staff owned what we now affectionately refer to as "dumbphones." Even then, those old-fashioned few were luddites, clutching to earlier times, and outdated gadgets. Since, even the most stubborn of us have upgraded to a full-fledged smart phone. But you never forget your first. For the most part.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.