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A Brief History Of The Mobile Phone


A new Smartphone goes on sale. The Nokia Lumina 900 represents the Finnish company's big and somewhat desperate effort to regain a toehold in the all-important U.S. market.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman offers this brief history of America's infatuation with the mobile phone.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: In The iconic 1987 film "Wall Street," Michael Douglas strolls the beach with and uses his cell phone to congratulate an associate on making a ton of money.


KAUFMAN: That image gave the still novel gizmo a huge boost in popular culture. That same year, the mobile phone got another jolt into the public's consciousness with cameras rolling in Helsinki, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called Moscow.

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV: (Foreign language spoken)

KAUFMAN: But while the late 1980s marked the beginning of our love affair with the mobile phone, its history traces back to the 1940s. AT&T first introduced the concept in St Louis with just a single transmission tower. Only a few people could use their phones at the same time.

DR. SHELDON HOCHHEISER: The phones were in cars.

KAUFMAN: That's Sheldon Hochheiser, an archivist at the IEEE History Center at Rutgers University. He knows a lot about those early phones.

HOCHHEISER: They weighed 80 pounds and filled much of the trunk. Remember, these are before transistors. These are vacuum tubes.

KAUFMAN: For a long time, AT&T's phones were stuck in the car. On the other hand, Hochheiser says Motorola had a different vision.

HOCHHEISER: And it was Marty Cooper who conceives of the idea of a completely portable telephone that one can carry around with them. He demonstrates a prototype phone in 1973.

KAUFMAN: Cooper, then a vice president at Motorola walked down a New York City street and called his competitor at AT&T.

DR. MARTY COOPER: And I told him, Joel, I'm calling you on a real cell phone; a personal portable hand-held cell phone.

KAUFMAN: But Regulatory and other hurdles loomed large. And in the U.S., more than a decade would pass before the phones would be commercially viable. And even then, they were pricey. An AT&T car phone would have set you back about $2,500. The Motorola model would have cost about four grand.

Improved technology would soon lead to smaller phones. Motorola's first one designed to fit in a shirt pocket made its debut in 1989. And Marty Cooper says Finnish phone maker Nokia was about to make the price shrink, as well.

COOPER: They worked out ways in which they could build a single phone and get big economies of scale, and they ended up with a really low priced phone.

KAUFMAN: Back in the early days of the cell phone, experts predicted about 900,000 Americans would be using the device by the turn of the century. They were wrong, very wrong. Historian Hochheiser says the number skyrocketed to more than 100 times that number.

HOCHHEISER: The idea that the cell phone would become everyman's device, rather than something for extremely affluent people on the go, clearly escaped nearly everyone.

KAUFMAN: Today about 300 million Americans have cell phones.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wendy Kaufman