50 years ago he made the first mobile phone call

New York

On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper stood on a sidewalk on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan with a device the size of a brick and made the first public call from a cell phone to one of the men he had been competing with to develop the device. .

“I̵[ads1]7;m calling you on a cell phone, but a real cell phone, a personal, hand-held, portable cell phone,” Cooper, then an engineer at Motorola, said on the phone to Joel Engel, head of AT&T-owned Bell Labs.

While cell phones wouldn’t be available to the average consumer for another decade, anyone who walked past Cooper on the street that day could have seen history being made.

In the fifty years since that first call, Cooper’s bulky device has evolved and been replaced by a wide range of thinner, faster phones that are now ubiquitous, reshaping industries, culture and the way we relate to each other and ourselves. But while the enormous reach and impact of cell phones may have caught some off guard, Cooper said the possibility that cell phones would one day be considered essential to much of humanity was clear from the start.

“I wasn’t surprised that everybody has a cell phone,” Cooper, now 94, told CNN. “We used to tell the story back then that one day when you were born, you would be assigned a phone number. If you didn’t answer the phone, you would die.”

For months before that first call, Motorola raced to build a cell phone against Bell Labs, the legendary research arm of AT&T that had developed the transistor and other innovations.

“They were the biggest company in the world, and we were a small company in Chicago,” Cooper recalled. “They just didn’t think we were very important.”

Martin Cooper, who developed the first portable mobile phone.

As he recalls it, his rival wasn’t quite as excited to get the call as Cooper was to call him.

“You could tell I wasn’t averse to rubbing his nose in this thing. He was polite to me,” Cooper told CNN. “To this day, Joel doesn’t remember that phone call, and I guess I don’t blame him.” (CNN was unable to contact Engel.)

After Cooper’s first call, manufacturing issues and government regulation slowed progress in bringing the phone to the public, he said. For example, Cooper recalls that the Federal Communications Commission, an agency where he now serves as an adviser, was struggling to figure out how to divide up radio channels to ensure competition.

It would be a decade before a version of that DynaTAC (Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) phone hit the market, for a hefty $3,900. The phone, similar to the one used by Gordon Gekko in the movie “Wall Street,” weighed 2.5 pounds and was about a foot tall.

Compare that to the iPhone 14, which weighs 6 grams and is just under six inches, or to any number of budget Android smartphones that cost $200-$300.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the modern mobile phone took off, when it shrunk far down in size and became much more user-friendly. Today, 97% of Americans own a cell phone of some kind, according to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center.

In the years since that first call, Cooper has written a book about the transformative power of the cell phone, started companies, and made speaking tours and media appearances. But he does not necessarily embrace every aspect of modern technological advancement.

Motorola Vice President John F. Mitchell demonstrates the ease of use of the company's latest product, the Dyna TAC Portable Radio Telephone System, in New York, NY, on April 3, 1973.

“Too many engineers get wrapped up in what they call technology and the gadgets, the hardware, and they forget that the whole purpose of technology is to make people’s lives better,” Cooper said. “People forget that and I have to keep reminding them. We try to improve the human experience. That’s what technology is all about.”

Looking back over the last 50 years, however, Cooper largely approves of where the telephone has taken us. An iPhone user himself (and a Samsung user before that), he loves using his Apple Watch to track his swimming activity and connect his hearing aids to his phone. And Cooper said he sees technology’s progress as a net positive for society.

“I am an optimist. I know there are disadvantages to the mobile phone. We have people who become addicted to it. We have people walking across the street talking on cell phones,” Cooper said. “Overall, I think the cell phone has changed humanity for the better, and it will continue to do so in the future.”

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