Martin Cooper led the team at Motorola that developed the world’s first handheld mobile phone. He was born in 1928. He served in the US Navy before taking a degree in Electrical Engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). In 1954 he joined Motorola and worked on pagers and then car phones using cellular technology. At that stage the car phones were mobile only in the sense that they moved when the car did.
In the early 1970s Cooper was worried that Motorola’s great rival AT&T was gaining a lead in car phone technology and was lobbying the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for frequency space for its car phone network. Despite the fact that AT&T were larger than Motorola and had much greater research resources, Cooper wanted to challenge and if possible to leapfrog the giant. He has said that watching Captain Kirk using his communicator on the television show Star Trek inspired him with a stunning idea – to develop a handheld mobile phone. He and his team took only 90 days in 1973 to create the first portable cellular 800 MHz phone prototype.
Martin Cooper was not just a clever engineer. He also understood the power of public relations. He called a press conference. On April 3, 1973, on Sixth Avenue in New York City, in front of a group of amazed journalists Cooper made the first public phone call from a prototype handheld cellular phone. Showing remarkable chutzpah, he made that first call to Joel Engel, head of research at AT&T Bell Labs to inform his rivals that they were well behind. He then allowed some of the reporters to make phone calls to anyone of their choosing to prove how the cell phone worked. The resulting publicity was a sensation.
Cooper later said, ‘As I walked down the street while talking on the phone, sophisticated New Yorkers gaped at the sight of someone actually moving around while making a phone call. Remember that in 1973, there weren’t cordless telephones, let alone cellular phones. I made numerous calls, 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.’
The original Motorola DynaTAC handset weighed a hefty 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) and had very restricted talk time. Cooper later joked, ‘The battery lifetime was 20 minutes, but that wasn’t really a big problem because you couldn’t hold the phone up for that long.’ Because of the infrastructure needed, it took a full 10 years before the first commercial cell phone, the DynaTAC 8000x was launched in 1983. This phone weighed 1.1 pounds, had 30 minutes of battery life and was priced at $3,995 – about $9300 in today’s prices.
The Startrek series foreshadowed many other innovative ideas and inspired other inventors. Ed Roberts, who invented the first home computer, the Altair 8800, named it after the Altair Solar System in a Star Trek episode.
Based on a chapter in Think like an Innovator by Paul Sloane published by Pearson.