On April 3, 1973, a Motorola engineer named Martin Cooper made the very first handheld cell phone call while standing on Sixth Avenue outside the New York City Hilton in midtown Manhattan.
That historic call, with a portable phone weighing 2.5lbs, would revolutionize how we communicate with each other. But the ‘brick’ phone is very different from the small, lightweight smartphone you use today to talk, text and even surf the internet with on a daily basis.
Cooper reflects on that first call with Al Pisano, Dean of UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering. He describes what it took to develop the world’s first cellular telephone, the impact it had on the world, the spirit of entrepreneurship, and the future of smartphone technology.
It might be hard for many young people today to imagine, but prior to modern-day cell phones, telephone service was in fixed locations such as homes, businesses and public telephone booths — known as landlines. Other than walkie-talkies used by emergency personnel like police, portable two-way communication didn’t exist. And while the first cellular phones were used in automobiles, they were unreliable and not truly mobile since they were physically attached to the car.
Cooper, who was head of Motorola’s communications systems division, believed that there was something beyond the car phone, and was tasked with developing a device that would make the car phone obsolete technology. That first cell phone call he made a half century ago in New York City was to another engineer, Joel Engel, head of AT&T’s rival project.