By Arthur Lightbourn
Let’s face it.
Not many of us accomplish anything resembling a giant leap forward for mankind.
But Del Mar resident Martin Cooper did — when he invented the cell phone and made the first call on it 38 years ago.
Today, there are an estimated five billion cell phones in use around the world. It is, without a doubt, an invention that revolutionized the world as we know it and is continuing to do so on a daily basis.
But this is just the beginning, Cooper predicts: Social networking is the seed of another revolution that in future will surpass the cellular revolution and contribute to a more collaborative world.
Cooper was working as an engineer at the radio-related Motorola company when he came up with the wild idea of using the cellular telephony concept (conceived in 1946 by AT&T) to invent and build the first portable, hand-held cell phone, thereby challenging communications giant AT&T’s monopolistic intention to control cellular technology and confine its use to car phones.
Motorola had lengthy experience with portable radio communications. In 1940, it produced the famed walkie-talkie used by the military during World War II.
“We didn’t care for the idea of a monopoly,” Cooper said. “It would have either put us out of business or made us a slave to AT&T. We had our own vision. So we took on AT&T.
“We knew that people didn’t want to talk to cars, or to houses, or to offices. They want to talk to other people…To demonstrate this, we invented the first portable cellular telephone so that we could prove to the world that our idea of personal communications was correct” and to convince the Federal Communications Commission to allocate frequency space to private companies for use in cellular communications.
Although the mobile hand-held “cellular” phone was his idea and the result of his missionary zeal within Motorola to make it happen, he said, “It actually took a team to build that phone,” at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The team included industrial designers and engineers from various divisions within Motorola.
And, on April 3, 1973, while walking on the street to a press conference to demonstrate the invention at the Manhattan Hilton Hotel in New York City, Cooper, then director of Motorola’s systems division, couldn’t resist pushing the orange “off hook” button on Motorola’s 2-and-a-half-pound prototype handset that wirelessly connected him to a base station that Motorola installed on the roof of a nearby building. Dialing the number of his rival, Joel Engle, head of research at AT&T’s Bell Labs, and lifting the hefty handset to his ear, Cooper made the world’s first in-public analog mobile cell phone call.
In his characteristic, low-key Midwestern accent, Cooper said: ‘Hi , Joel. This is Marty Cooper. I’m calling you from a cell phone — but a real cell phone, [pause], a personal, [pause again] hand-held cell phone.’
“You notice how I rubbed it in,” he chuckled to recall. “There was a silence on the line and he may have been gritting his teeth, then he politely chatted with me for a moment and then we hung up. To this day, Joel doesn’t remember that phone call, but I promise you it happened because there was a journalist, like you, standing next to me at the time.”