September 26, 2023

Happy 50th birthday, cell phones

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It might be hard to imagine a world without cell phones, but there was most definitely a time when they remained the stuff of science fiction. That is, until 50 years ago to the day, to be more exact. April 3 marks a half century of cell phones, albeit it took a little while for the technology powering Motorola engineer Martin Cooper’s DynaTAC cell phone to become a ubiquitous facet of everyday life.

Affectionately dubbed “the Brick,” the DynaTAC—short for Dynamic Total Area Coverage—contained 30 circuit boards, stood nine inches tall, and weighed 2.5 pounds. As Smithsonian Magazine notes in its own retrospective published Monday, the first truly mobile phone took approximately 10 hours to fully charge. Even then, conversations were capped at around 35 minutes before the Brick needed to refuel.

It would take another decade for Motorola to release a commercial cell phone. Not many could afford it at a $3,500 price point (roughly $10,600 by today’s standards). Four decades on, and there are now more phones than humans, with 18 billion devices estimated in service by 2025.

Engineer Martin Cooper holds in his right hand a contemporary copy of the original cell phone he used to make the first cell phone call on April 3, 1973, in Del Mar, California on March 20, 2023. - The problem with mobile phones is that people look at them too much. At least, that's according to the man who invented them 50 years ago. Martin Cooper, an American engineer dubbed the "Father of the cell phone," says the neat little device we all have in our pockets has almost boundless potential and could one day even help conquer disease. But right now, we can be a little obssessed. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP) (Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)
Martin Cooper with cell phones, old and new. CREDIT: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

Of course, smartphones are now standard pocket accessories, and boast countless more features than Cooper’s original DynaTAC, but the “rudimentary” cell phone isn’t completely dead. In 2021, Pew Research Center estimated around 11 percent of US adults owned an old school cell phone, as opposed to a more advanced smartphone. In fact, there is at least some evidence to show that consumers might increasingly prefer a “dumb phone” alternative to the feeling of 24/7 connectivity and instant contact. At least one report indicates a growing percentage of Gen Z is playing around with retro cell phones that boast limited features.

After 50 years and billions of phone calls, it might still be difficult to beat the very first cell phone chat from Cooper himself. As Smithsonian Magazine also recounts in its look back, the engineer and inventor allegedly called up the lead cell phone engineer at Motorola’s rival, AT&T. “I’m calling you from a cell phone. But a real cell phone! Personal, hand-held, portable cell phone,” Cooper recounted of his improvised publicity stunt.

His competitor’s reported response? Stunned silence, along with allegations that the phone call never took place.

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