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Martin Cooper: the godfather of the cell phone

Martin Cooper: the godfather of the cell phone

Dr. Joel S. Engles’ landline rang with a roar. The voice at the other end of the line was smug, “Joel, this is Marty. I’m calling you from a cell phone, a real handheld portable cell phone.” It was April 3rd, 1973, the day that Dr. Engles, Manager of Corporate Planning at AT&T, became the first person in history to receive a call from a cell phone — from his chief competitor, Martin Cooper, head of the communications systems division at Motorola.

Cooper made the call while flanked by reporters on his way to a press conference at the New York Hilton in midtown Manhattan. The moment marked the end of a long race to provide mobile connectivity to the public.

“Cooper’s original cell phone weighed over a kilogram and had a whopping 20 minutes of talk time before needing a 10-hour recharge. It was a far cry from hard-boiled comic book detective Dick Tracy’s two-way radio wristwatch by which it was inspired…”

AT&T had spent years investing heavily in car phones, which they saw as the inevitable next step in the progression of telephone systems. They had even approached the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for exclusive spectrum rights, in an attempt to monopolise the mobile phone market — a move that was welcomed by the FCC because it simplified their licensing protocol.

Not to be outdone, Cooper’s division at Motorola launched a counterattack — they argued in front of the FCC that AT&T’s monopoly over the spectrum threatened the market. Cooper also went forward with an insurmountably ambitious project: a true personal communications device that didn’t limit you to a car or a house or an office. In Coopers’ own words “the time was ripe for true ‘personal communications.’” A vision that was eventually realised while trudging through traffic on 6th avenue. AT&T had lost the race and Motorola was on top of the telecommunications industry.

Martin Cooper is a telecommunications visionary whose name shows up next to the likes of Alexander Graham Bell in the lexicon of telecommunications greats. After graduating with a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Cooper spent several years working at Teletype in Chicago before joining Motorola as a senior development engineer in 1954 — an opportunity which he professed as one of the luckiest things to ever happen to him. “If you wanted to change society, Motorola was the place to be,” he once noted. Top management at Motorola supported Cooper’s vision for personal mobility. They invested $100 million dollars into his division before any revenues were even realised.

Their investment paid off in the form of a personal handheld portable device lovingly dubbed The Brick. Cooper’s original cell phone weighed over a kilogram and had a whopping 20 minutes of talk time before needing a 10-hour recharge. And while it was a far cry from hard-boiled comic book detective Dick Tracy’s two-way radio wristwatch by which it was inspired, The Brick revolutionised personal communications nonetheless.

Cooper’s mobile phone worked off a bare-bones network that might be considered a predecessor to everything from 0G to 5G. To connect these early devices, Motorola had set up a base station on the roof of the Burlington House (now the AllianceBernstein building) which connected directly into the AT&T landline telephone system. Although rudimentary, Cooper and his team would later go on to work on the first network system for two-way radio communication. In 1975, Martin Cooper would be the lead inventor named on the patent for the Radio Telephone System, regarded as the first description of an operating standard for mobile network communications.

Martin Cooper laid the foundation for much of the contemporary telecommunications industry. In 2013 he was awarded for his work with the Marconi Prize — an unparalleled honour in the field of communication and information science. In the words of vice chairman of the Marconi Society, Vint Cerf, “the idea of making telecommunications ‘person-centric’ instead of tied to a particular place . . . caused a tectonic shift in the industry.”

Few inventors have managed to impact the course of human communications to the extent that Cooper has. And surely none have done it with the righteous flare of an impromptu phone call to their biggest competitors to rub salt in their wound using the very invention that solidified their triumph.

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