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The Birth of The Cell Phone

Think about this for a second. Today's college freshmen have lived their entire lives in a world where the phone was considered to be a small, portable device that fit into your pocket. While most certainly had parents who maintained a telephone line in the house, that was referred to as the "home number." Their cell phones were their personal and mobile communications devices, with all of the freedom inherent in that.

Today's cell phone is so ubiquitous that it actually takes a bit of effort to remember what it was like before them. Anyone in the high-tech industry - or for that matter, doctors, lawyers and stock brokers - in the late 80s and early 90s clearly remembers the transition from pagers to cell phones. But within just a few short years, cell phone use would explode among the general public.

The first cellular phone is not to be confused with car phones, which had been around since the mid-1940s. These devices weighed nearly 100 pounds, were integrated into a vehicle, and were essentially glorified two-way radios. Cell phones on the other hand used new wireless signaling technology to connect to the public service telephone network.

The birth of the modern cell phone took place on April 3rd, 1973. This is the day the first call was made by Martin Cooper, then head of Motorola's communications systems division. Standing on a street in New York City and surrounded by reporters, Cooper placed a call using a DynaTAC prototype to his rival at Bell Labs, Joel Engel and asked, "How does my voice sound?" 

The real challenge in the early days of cell phones however, was creating the network that would allow these mobile connections to take place. Martin Cooper's historic call used a base station that had been set up by Motorola on top of a building across from where he had stood. This base station then tied into AT&T's landline network. Clearly this was not a practical solution for widespread cell phone use.

Over the succeeding 10 years Motorola and AT&T, through their Bell Labs subsidiary, worked on competing cellular signaling technologies. The design from Bell Labs, called Advanced Mobile Phone System or AMPS, was the first full-scale cellular network in the U.S.

In 1983, at around the time AMPS became a viable cellular network solution, the Motorola-designed DynaTAC 8000x became commercially available. The original retail price was $4,000 - the equivalent of more than $10,000 in today's prices.

In the years following his historic inaugural cell phone call, Martin Cooper famously said that "people want to talk to other people, not a house or an office or a car." His words would prove prophetic, as people have come to depend on their mobile phones as indispensable tools for personal and business communication. 

To learn more about the history of the cell phone, and the phone they called "the brick," click here.

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