This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

First Call


April 3, 1973: First Cell Phone Call

1973… no digital cameras, no personal computers, no internet and no cell phones. Well there was that one. That one that Motorola’s Martin Cooper used to place a call to his rival Joel Engel, over at AT&T.

Cooper was running the Motorola cellular program at the time and had to let Joel know that he won the race. His exact words weren’t recorded but it went something like, “I’m ringing you just to see if my call sounds good at your end”.

Martin Cooper in NY at "the spot" of the call

Martin Cooper in NY at “the spot” of the call

On this day in 1973, Cooper crossed Sixth Avenue in New York clutching a 2 ½ pound gadget 10 inches long affectionately to become known as, “the brick”. It was the prototype version that became Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000x. It took a decade before the DynaTAC finally reached consumers hands September 1, 1983 for a whopping $3995.00.

Star Trek Communicator

Star Trek Communicator

Cooper was inspired by Captain Kirk’s gold-flip “communicator” of Star Trek fame. 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 car.

Cooper couldn’t shake the idea that people didn’t want to be tethered to a stationary phone, even in a car. He thought a phone should be truly portable, that it should be able to go anywhere a person went.

Cooper on phoneAs he explained it in an interview:

“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.”

In an oral history he gave to the Computer History Museum in 2008, Cooper remembered how he organized a competition miniturisationEDamong 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.”

DynaTAC 8000x

DynaTAC 8000x

You see, Motorola was facing a time issue. They only had 3 months to design and assemble a product that had not been developed yet. Something they could demonstrate in front of upcoming FCC hearings requested by AT&T to monopolize rights over cellular telephone business.

Everyone involved would have to drop everything. And so sketches were made, models built and out of 8 or 9 one was turned into a prototype. The winner was a model nicknamed the “Shoe Phone” for its shape.

The winning prototype had been created by Ken Larson, a 10 year Motorola veteran. There were more creative designs, but Ken’s was logical, basic and looked like you could put it right into production.

Ken Larson, 3rd from left with GlobalSpec Award

Ken Larson, 3rd from left with GlobalSpec Award

Ken Larsoncopy



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