April 2018 marks 45 years since the first mobile phone call took place. The date might come as a surprise since the early 1970s are not generally thought of as the mobile phone age, but indeed, this is when the technology began to rapidly emerge.

The First Mobile Phone Call

It was a long road to that first mobile phone call, but the hint of the possibilities had begun to stir even in the late 18th century. AT&T chief engineer John J. Carty wrote the following in 1891: ‘A system of telephony without wires seems one of the interesting possibilities, and the distance on the earth through which it is possible to speak is theoretically limited only by the curvature of the earth.’ Close to one hundred years before mobile phones became commercially available, the nugget of an idea was present in the minds of the world’s telecommunication experts.

Here’s where it all began:

1876

The first telephone call is made by Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant.

1910

The first ‘car phone’ emerges. The need to have a communication device that travelled with a person became apparent to a Swedish engineer named Lars Magnus Ericsson. He installed a telephone in his car and would use long wires to connect his phone to the telephone poles installed along the route.

1954

In the 1940s and 50s, technological growth made cellular towers possible, and this lead to the introduction of phones mounted in vehicles. The 1954 film Sabrina was perhaps the first to showcase a mobile phone call made from inside a car.

Early car phones were extraordinarily clunky and took a great deal of equipment to work. There were also only a handful of radio channels for them to use, so the number of people who could make calls at a given time was severely limited. The cost was also prohibitive.

Car Phone
It was mostly the very wealthy who could afford the earliest car phones.

1964

AT&T develops an Improved Mobile Telephone Service in the early 60s and by 1964 more than 1.5 million people are using mobile car phone technology.

1973

The first truly ‘mobile’ phone call.

On April 3rd, 1973, the first mobile phone call was made by Martin (Marty) Cooper, an engineer from Motorola. He made the call on a handset that weighed 1.1 kg and boasted dimensions of 228.6 x 127 x 44.4 mm. This was a heavy device, but---perhaps fortunately---it could only provide talk time of 20-30 minutes in one session. It would then require 10 hours of recharging to use the phone again. The prototype used eventually became the first mobile phone released, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x.

That very first mobile phone call was a bit of a cheeky one. Cooper, whilst standing in the streets of New York City, placed a call to Joel S. Engel in New Jersey at rival company Bell Labs, informing him that he was calling from a mobile phone. The prototype phone eventually became the first mobile device to be released commercially, but this wouldn’t happen until 10 years later.

The Evolution of the Mobile Phone

In 1983, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x went onto the market. It retailed for approximately $4,000 USD, which would be a large sum even today. But it’s price tag made sense. In order to release the device, Motorola had invested one hundred million dollars in developing the cellular infrastructure necessary for the phone to work.

When it premiered, the DynaTAC 8000x weighed 0.8 kg and it offered call time of approximately 30 minutes. No one was sure if this first mobile phone would take off or not, but it did. That first year, Ameritech sold 12,000 cellular phones and around 10% of these were the DynaTAC 8000X. It was novel and perhaps a bit ‘cool’ to have a mobile phone, and the demand was surprisingly high.

Phone models remained pretty clunky throughout the 80s. Nokia’s first handheld mobile came out in 1987. This was the Mobira Cityman 900. It was much lighter than the DynaTAC 8000, demonstrating a move towards smaller, more compact phones.

1989 saw the release of the Motorola MicroTAC 9800X. This model could be considered the father of ‘flip phones’ as it was the smallest device made at the time (weighing 350g) and could fit into a jacket pocket. This phone, retailing around $2500 USD, came with a red LED display and a range of options including a calculator, hands-free operation, and keypad tones.

The first mass-produced GSM digital phone appeared in 1992: the Nokia 1011. At just 475g it was a lightweight device with a talk time of roughly 90 minutes.

Smartphones in 1993? Possibly. Bellsouth and IBM showed off their Simon personal communicator phone, the world’s first “smartphone.” This unusual device was something of a hybrid between telephone and computer, and included paging and email capabilities, a calendar, and a stylus for on-screen writing. Only 2,000 of these $899 devices were produced.

1993 also witnessed the dawn of widespread text messaging. Nokia produced the first handset which allowed for user-sending of SMS text messages. By 1997, the company had created a mobile phone boasting a full keyboard: the Nokia 9000i Communicator.

Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, mobile phone popularity began to grow exponentially, particularly with the shift from analogue to digital technology. Phones became smaller in size and more affordable, and companies began marketing their products to new consumer demographics, such as families and young people.

The Nokia 1100, which was introduced in 2003, is the world’s best selling handset. With 250 million+ sold. This outpaces even the high-selling iPhone 6.

Car Phone
The Nokia 1100 was one of the world’s top selling mobile phone handsets.

The intervening years saw all kinds of adaptations: sliding keyboards, clamshell phones, phones that opened sideways, unusual phones built for gaming, and of course, the first camera phones.

The first iPhone arrived on the scene in 2007, and this is a device which undoubtedly changed the face of mobile technology forevermore. From its touch screen to its high-quality camera to its indispensable apps, the iPhone transformed the mobile phone world. A little over two months after its introduction, Apple had already sold one million iPhones.

If you want to delve deeper into the evolution of the mobile phone, here’s a great visual look at how mobile phones evolvedfrom 1983 to 2009.

The Impact of the Mobile Phone

Among the global population, it is expected that nearly 5 billion of us will own mobile phones by the year 2019. We’re already quite close to approaching that number.

Smartphones are now ubiquitous and are responsible for the generation of multibillion-dollar industries exist today. This ‘button economy’ has given rise to hundreds of thousands of business that would never have existed without smartphones. Truly, the mobile phone---combined with the Internet---has brought about tremendous change to our world, perhaps more than any other inventions of the last century.

It can most closely be aligned with the changes brought by the telephone itself. The most obvious advantages are those of instant or near-instant communication, but, like the telephone, the Internet has changed society itself. In the 19th century, many people made profound predictions about how the telephone would alter the world. Some of these varied observations were recorded in a 1983 book called “Forecasting the Telephone.” On this Internet history resource, we can read some of the major predictions made.

People said the telephone would:


The telephone has done all that and more, and mobile phones have taken it even further. The impact of the mobile phone could fill a book, but here’s just a handful of ways that mobile technology is reshaping society:

Shopping

Mobile devices have certainly revolutionised shopping. While it was once necessary to go to the shops in person or to order from a catalogue, smartphones and apps allow consumers to order items at the mere touch of a button. This has changed not only the way in which we research and purchase items, but it has changed the way businesses approach consumers and even created a need for new products.

Marketing

While traditional advertising isn’t dead, marketing is immensely different now that mobile phones rule our lives. Marketing has adapted to consider our shortening attention spans and has become integrated into our search patterns and even our browsing history. It’s sometimes startling how we are shown targeted advertisements on our devices but it all points to this massive shift in the commercial world.

Relationships

There’s no doubt that the Internet has forever changed the ways we meet potential partners and form relationships. There are positive and negative aspects of these developments, but it’s definitely true that interacting with strangers is something we now find quite commonplace. Mobile phones create a (perhaps imaginary) distance that allows us to message, text, and interact with people from behind a screen. It’s likely that mobile phones have also made it far easier to build and sustain long-distance relationships, particularly thanks to video chatting capabilities.

Social Media

An entire novel could be written about social media’s influence on society, but social media’s gigantic rise would probably not have occurred without the help of mobile devices. Today, we live in a world where it’s not unusual to share your every move, posting status updates that share where you’re eating lunch, photos of your day, and even live videos, which we can broadcast from wherever. Mobile phones have in many ways pushed our lives onto these online platforms, and it can be tough to separate our virtual lives from our actual lives.

Transportation/Navigation

Can you picture a world without Uber? Or even Google Maps? Many of us can’t recall the last time we used a paper map or an atlas to find out way around. That’s because mobile phones have rendered these items nearly irrelevant. Who needs a paper map when a GPS-driven voice can tell you exactly how to get from point A to point B? These advances have simplified our lives and made transportation easier in a myriad of ways.

Uber is also a great example of how mobile phones have contributed to the sharing economy and created new ways for people to earn an income. We as a society have been able to leverage our constant connections via smartphones and turn them into tangible ways to make money (Uber, Airbnb) or to share resources (ridesharing, coworking, talent sharing, peer-to-peer lending, etc).

The Rise of Video

Rare is the event nowadays that isn’t captured on video. When the mobile phone became a camera phone, the world shifted even further. Photos and videos (especially videos) became increasingly commonplace and changed the way we live and work.

Thanks to YouTube, self-produced video has emerged as a leading force in entertainment, information (instruction videos, recipes, etc), and even news. In many ways, video is more powerful and more widely shared than images or words alone, so the ideas contained in videos can reach far and wide. This has both positive and negative effects but with mobile devices, it’s easier than ever for things to gain enormous traction and ‘go viral.’

Mobile Phone Technology & Our Future

The growth of mobile phones hasn’t just changed these obvious concepts such as work, entertainment, and transportation. On a deeper level, it has brought new questions and issues into play; things like privacy concerns or philosophical considerations about how much we share online, via these devices in our hands. You can’t deny that the mobile phone has revolutionised the way we live---particularly when 91% of us claim to keep our smartphones constantly within arm’s reach.

Smart Watch
Mobile phones have given way to mobile devices of all kinds.

As we move forward and new mobile phone technology emerges, it remains unsure how society will be transformed. We’ve seen that more and more everyday items are becoming Internet capable, which means are mobile devices are no longer just limited to phones. This is paving the way for a highly-connected world and is leading to an expansion in the ‘Internet of Things.’

Wearable technology has come into existence, providing us with the resources of a mobile phone in an entirely new format. As researchers work to make devices smaller and even more portable, it could be that the mobile phone---as we know it now---will eventually turn into something nearly unrecognisable.

It’s exciting to anticipate the impending changes and see what is next for the mobile phone.

Let’s talk again in another 45 years.

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