The first cell phone call was 75 years ago – what it takes for technology to go from success to big time

I have a cell phone built into my watch. People now take this type of technology for granted, but not so long ago it was firmly in the realm of science fiction. The transition from fantasy to reality was far from the key switch. The amount of time, money, talent and effort required to put a phone on my wrist extended far beyond any product development cycle.

The people who crossed a watch with a cell phone worked hard for several years to make it happen, but technological development is really happening on a time scale of decades. While the latest steps in technology development are capturing headlines, it takes thousands of scientists and engineers working for decades on many technologies to get to the point where blockbusters are beginning to capture the public’s imagination.

The first mobile phone service, for 80-pound phones installed in cars, was demonstrated on June 17, 1946, 75 years ago. The service was only available in major cities and highway corridors and was aimed at companies rather than individuals. The equipment filled much of the trunk of a car, and subscribers made calls by picking up the handset and talking to a switchboard operator. By 1948, the service had 5,000 customers.

This 1940s promotional film touts Bell Telephone’s Mobile Telephone Service.

It was the first portable cell phone demonstrated in 1973, almost three decades after the introduction of the first mobile phone service. It was almost three decades after that half of the U.S. population had a cell phone.

Great story in small packages

As an electrical engineer, I know that today’s mobile phone technology has a remarkable number of components, each with a long development path. The phone has antennas and electronics that allow you to transmit and receive signals. It has a specialized computer processor that uses advanced algorithms to convert information to signals that can be transmitted over the air. These algorithms have hundreds of component algorithms. Each of these pieces of technology and many more have decades of developmental history.

A common thread running through the development of almost all electronic technologies is miniaturization. The radio transmitters, computer processors and batteries at the heart of your mobile phone are the descendants of generations of these technologies that have successively grown smaller and lighter.

The phone itself would be of little use without cellular base stations and all the network infrastructure behind them. The first cell phone services used a few large radio towers, which meant that all subscribers in a large city shared one central base station. This was not a recipe for universal cell phone service.

Engineers began working on a concept to overcome this problem around the time of the first mobile phone services, and it took almost four decades to launch the first mobile service in 1983. Cellular service involves interconnected networks of smaller radio transmitters that transmit moving callers from one transmitter to another.

The author explains the ‘cell’ in cell phone service.

Military necessity

Your mobile phone is the result of more than a hundred years of business and government investment in research and development in all its components and related technologies. A significant part of the avant-garde development was funded by the military.

An important impetus for the development of mobile wireless technologies was the need during World War II for soldiers to communicate on the movement in the field. The SRC-536 Handie-Talkie was developed by the predecessor to Motorola Corporation and used by the U.S. Army in the war. The Handie Talkie was a two-way radio that was small enough to be held in one hand and looked like a telephone. Motorola has gone on to become one of the leading manufacturers of mobile phones.

The history of military investment in technology becoming a game-changing business product and service has been repeated over and over again. Famously, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has developed the technologies behind internet and speech recognition. But DARPA has also made possible investments in advanced communication algorithms, processor technology, electronic miniaturization, and many other aspects of your phone.

A clock that is a telephone.

Looking forward to it

Realizing that it takes many decades of research and investment to develop each generation of technology, it is possible to understand what may come next. Today’s communication technologies – 5G, WiFi, Bluetooth, etc. – are fixed standards, meaning they are all designed for one purpose. But for the past 30 years, the Department of Defense and corporations have been investing in more capable and flexible technologies.

Your phone in the near future may not only signal fluently in more efficient ways, enable longer intervals or higher data rates, or last significantly longer with charging, it could also use that radio frequency energy to perform other functions. For example, your communication signal could also be used as a radar signal to track your gestures to check your phone, measure the size of a room, or even monitor your heart rate to predict heartache.

It is always difficult to predict where technology will go, but I can guarantee that future technology will build on decades after decades of research and development.

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