50 years ago, he made the first cell phone call

Apr 4, 2023, 7:00 AM

Martin Cooper, who developed the first portable cellphone, warned against dialing and driving in hi...

Martin Cooper, who developed the first portable cellphone, warned against dialing and driving in his office in Del Mar, Calif., in November 2009. Long before cell phones became common, industry pioneers were aware of the risks of multitasking behind the wheel, and their hunches have been validated by many scientific studies showing the dangers of talking while driving and, more recently, of texting. But despite this, the industry built itself into a $150 billion business in the United States largely by winning over a crucial customer: the driver. (Sandy Huffaker/The New York Times)

(Sandy Huffaker/The New York Times)

  (CNN) — On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper stood on a sidewalk on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan with a device the size of a brick and made the first public call from a cell phone to one of the men he’d been competing with to develop the device.

“I’m calling you on a cell phone, but a real cell phone, a personal, handheld, portable cell phone,” Cooper, then an engineer at Motorola, said on the phone to Joel Engel, head of AT&T-owned Bell Labs.

While cell phones would not be available to the average consumer for another decade, anyone walking by Cooper on the street that day could have seen history being made.

In the fifty years since that first call, Cooper’s bulky device has evolved and been replaced by a wide range of thinner, faster phones that are now ubiquitous and reshaping industries, culture and the way we relate to one another and ourselves. But while the vast reach and impact of cell phones may have caught some off guard, Cooper said the possibility that mobile phones would one day be deemed essential to much of mankind was clear from the start.

“I was not surprised that everybody has a cell phone,” Cooper, now 94, told CNN. “We used to tell the story then that someday when you’re born you would be assigned a phone number. If you didn’t answer the phone, you would die.”

The rise of the cell phone

For months before that first call, Motorola was racing to build a cell phone against Bell Labs, the legendary research arm of AT&T that had developed the transistor and other innovations.

“They were the biggest company in the world, and we were a little company in Chicago,” Cooper recalled. “They just didn’t think we were very important.”

As he recalls it, his rival wasn’t quite as excited to get the call as Cooper was to call him.

“You could tell I was not averse to rubbing his nose in this thing. He was polite to me,” Cooper told CNN. “To this day, Joel does not remember that phone call, and I guess I don’t blame him.” (CNN was unable to contact Engel.)

After Cooper’s first call, manufacturing issues and government regulation slowed the progress bringing the phone to the public, he said. For example, Cooper recalls the Federal Communications Commission, an agency at which he now serves as an adviser, struggling to sort out how to split up radio channels to ensure competition.

It would take a decade for a version of that DynaTAC (Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) phone to hit the market, for a hefty $3,900. The phone, similar to the one Gordon Gekko wielded in the movie “Wall Street,” weighed 2.5 pounds and was about a foot tall.

Compare that to the iPhone 14, which weighs 6 ounces and is just under six inches, or to any number of Android budget smartphones that cost $200-$300.

“Trying to improve the human experience”

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the modern cell phone took off, as it shrunk way down in size and became much more user friendly. Today, 97% of Americans own a cell phone of some kind, according to a 2021 study by Pew Research Center.

In the years since that first call, Cooper has written a book on the transformational power of the cell phone, started companies and done speaking tours and media appearances. But he doesn’t necessarily embrace every aspect of modern tech advancements.

“Too many engineers are wrapped up in what they call technology and the gadgets, the hardware, and they forget that the whole purpose of technology is to make peoples’ lives better,” said Cooper. “People forget that, and I have to keep reminding them. We are trying to improve the human experience. That’s what technology is all about.”

Looking back on the past 50 years, however, Cooper is largely approving of where the phone has taken us. An iPhone user himself (and a Samsung user before that), he loves using his Apple Watch to track his swimming activity and connect his hearing aids to his phone. And Cooper said he sees the technology’s advancement as being net positive for society.

“I’m an optimist. I know there are disadvantages to the cell phone. We do have people that get addicted to it. We have people walking across the street talking on their cell phones,” said Cooper. “Overall, I think the cell phone has changed humanity for the better and that will continue in the future.”

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50 years ago, he made the first cell phone call