Last week marked the anniversary of the first public cell phone call. It was 1973, ten years before cell phones would become commercially available and many more years before they would become wildly popular. Bob speaks with Martin Cooper, the former Motorola-man who made the first call about his company's rivalry with AT&T and the future of cell phones.
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BOB GARFIELD: Last Tuesday marked the anniversary of the first public cell phone call. It was in 1973, ten years before cell phones would become commercially available and many more years before they would become wildly popular. The caller, now 83, was Martin Cooper, who then worked for Motorola and who is now credited with being the father of modern cell phone technology.
It all started on Fifth Avenue in New York City, when Cooper called Joel Engel, his rival at AT&T, to tell Engel that Motorola had won the race and created a working hand-held cell phone. MARTIN COOPER: Well, I recall the conversation vividly. [BOB LAUGHS] I said, “Hi, Joel, it’s Marty, Marty Cooper. You remember me. And I’m calling you from a cell phone, but a real cell phone, a personal, hand-held portable cell phone.” And there was silence at the other end of the line. I suspect Joel was grinding his teeth. To this day, he doesn’t remember that conversation, and that doesn’t surprise me. BOB GARFIELD: So I’ve got to ask you about the scene. You were outside of, I believe, the New York Hilton, and standing on the sidewalk was a telephone the size of a leg of lamb! What – [LAUGHS] did the passersby, what must they have thought? MARTIN COOPER: They were gaping. They couldn’t imagine somebody talking on a telephone. You know, this was before not only cell phones but there weren’t cordless phones at that time. As I was talking to this reporter, I stepped out into the street and almost got nailed by a New York taxi. So that was prescient. BOB GARFIELD: Yes, an eerie foreshadowing. It was a while from that first historic phone call that cell phones became widely in use. I guess a lot of it had to do with cell phones work because the signal travels from tower to tower, and there was no such infrastructure in those days. How – how was the radio signal transmitted? MARTIN COOPER: Well Bob, we had to create not only a cell phone, but we actually had to build two stations. So we had a station right next to the New York Hilton, and then we had another station somewhere else in Manhattan. So the signal went from my telephone to the – one of these stations, and then into the land line, just the way cellular conversations work today. BOB GARFIELD: Now, it took a while for that infrastructure to be built so that we mere civilians could use this technology. From the point that you made your historic call, was it a smooth journey to pursue this technology? MARTIN COOPER: First of all, we had to create a lot of new technology. That first phone had thousands of parts in it. It was very, very difficult to maintain, so a lot of technology had to be created.
The bigger problem was the FCC’s problem. They had to select who were gonna be the competitors. The FCC didn’t actually select the first people until something like eight years later. There were a lot of naysayers during that period. Not a lot of people believed this was gonna be a huge business. BOB GARFIELD: It’s manifest - the benefits to society that cell technology has provided. There’s also a downside. What’s your greatest satisfaction and, if I may ask also, what’s your greatest regret about what you have wrought? MARTIN COOPER: When I hear stories about farmers in remote villages that now know, because of cell phone technology, what the market is for their products in neighboring villages, things of that nature bring great satisfaction to me.
And when it comes to the problems, people who text while they drive, that’s insane. And I just invented a system that will prevent that. So I think we’re going to solve that with technology. BOB GARFIELD: If in 1973 someone had said to you that hand-held devices would have miniature software apps embedded in them and enable subsistence farmers in Africa to communicate for virtually no cost, and people would be watching television on them, would you have looked at them the way the passersby that day looked at you? MARTIN COOPER: We knew that a lot of these things were gonna happen, but not in my lifetime. The idea of watching television on, on your screen – would you believe that Dick Tracy was talking on his wrist radio? And about the time that we came up with a cell phone, finally Dick Tracy had a video phone. [BOB LAUGHS] So he always stayed a little bit ahead of us. BOB GARFIELD: Earlier in the week, when we were arranging this conversation, you left a voice mail message for our producer. And I was wondering if I could just play that for you? [VOICEMAIL/CLIP]: Hi Chris, Marty Cooper. It’s really embarrassing to have my cell phones running out of – juice, so if you could call my assistant Glenna and give her whatever information I need for tomorrow, and she’ll make sure that I take care of it. Talk to you later. Bye now. [END VOICEMAIL] BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Here, Martin Cooper, you’re going to run out of battery life? You’d think you would have had a solution for that! MARTIN COOPER: How embarrassing! The fact is that the concept of finding a charger and plugging things in is another thing that’s part of the immaturity of our industry. You ought to be able to take your cell phone and just put it down on the counter and when you go to sleep at night and have it charged up when you wake up in the morning. So just an example of how the technology hasn’t moved fast enough for me. BOB GARFIELD: Martin, thank you very much. MARTIN COOPER: Well, my pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Martin Cooper is the co-founder of Dyna LLC, which supports new tech companies. And he is the father – of modern cell phone technology.