This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Thick as a Brick

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April 3, 1973:  First Cell Phone Call

On this day, April 3, in 1973, a man called Martin Cooper crossed Sixth Avenue clutching a telephonic gadget that would change history beyond all imagining. The device was the world’s first handheld cellphone, and Cooper had invited reporters to watch him make its first public call. Even sophisticated New Yorkers stopped and gaped. This new phone was not only cordless, it was small and light—just 10 inches long and a mere 2 1/2 pounds.

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Cooper was inspired to make a genuinely mobile cellphone after watching Captain Kirk’s gold flip-top “communicator” on Star Trek. In a fascinating oral history he gave to the Computer History Museum in 2008, Cooper remembered how he organized a competition among his designers for the best portable phone:

“We gave them two weeks, and after two weeks I took them all out to dinner and each guy stood up … and presented his version of the telephone and some of them were just beautiful. Some of them were actually suitable for a telephone today. Sliders, folders, just amazing … And we’re talking about 1972 … We ended up picking one that was not all that spectacular, because … even then, the more complicated you make something, the greater the chance it was going to break.”

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“As I walked down the street while talking on the phone,” Cooper once told an interviewer, “sophisticated New Yorkers gaped at the sight of someone actually moving around while making a phone call.”

There had been car phones before — mobile radios, really. They were powered by heavy equipment that had to be stashed in the trunk of the automobile.

But Cooper, who was the general manager of Motorola’s communications systems division, had the idea that people didn’t want to be tethered to a stationary telephone, even if the phone could ride along with them in their car. He thought that the phone should be so portable that it could go anywhere they went.

As he explained it in a later interview:

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Martin Cooper holds a Motorola DynaTAC, a 1973 prototype of the first handheld cellular telephone (Eric Risberg/AP)

“People want to talk to other people — not a house, or an office, or a car. Given a choice, people will demand the freedom to communicate wherever they are, unfettered by the infamous copper wire.”

He once told Maggie Shiels of the BBC that his concept for the cell phone — the “personal telephone,” as he referred to it — was that it was “something that would represent an individual, so you could assign a number not to a place, not to a desk, not to a home, but to a person.”

That first cell phone was so big that it was often described as resembling a shoe, or a brick. It weighed 2½ pounds. Cooper would joke to friends and colleagues that the calls from that phone would have to be short in duration: Who had the strength to hold it to an ear for very long?

Martin Cooper, chairman and CEO of ArrayComm

Martin Cooper, chairman and CEO of ArrayComm

Fittingly, Cooper’s famous first call was to Joel Engel, his rival at AT&T’s Bell Labs. And the rest really is history.

by Sean Macaulay & Bob Greene

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Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick – live Madison Square Garden 1978

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One thought on “Thick as a Brick

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