Del Mar: Cell phone inventor sees greater revolution seeded by social networking

Husband and wife team Martin Cooper, inventor of the cellular telephone, and Arlene Harris, creator of the Jitterbug Phone and holder of multiple patents in the field of technology, display their respective inventions in 2006. Photo: Associated Press
Husband and wife team Martin Cooper, inventor of the cellular telephone, and Arlene Harris, creator of the Jitterbug Phone and holder of multiple patents in the field of technology, display their respective inventions in 2006. Photo: Associated Press

By Arthur Lightbourn

Contributor

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.”

Cooper was named as the first inventor on the “Radio telephone system” patent filed on Oct. 27, 1973, with the U.S. Patent Office later issued as U.S. Patent 3.906.166. Others named on the patent were engineers who worked with Cooper at Motorola and his boss, John F. Mitchell.

Ten years later, 1983, Motorola brought its cell phone to market, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, that weighed 2 pounds and offered a half-hour talk time for every recharging. It sold for $3,995.

We interviewed Cooper, now 82, at his office on Via de la Valle in Del Mar.

Cooper remains as focused and feisty as he was when he was 44 and made that first historic cell phone call in 1973, although now his still full head of hair and neatly trimmed beard are white.

He keeps in shape skiing, playing tennis, and trail running in Torrey Pines.

And he still remains adamantly opposed to monopolies in any business, particularly in communications.

“We were an annoyance [to AT&T],” Cooper said. “And, in fact, if you went and talked to Joel today or his colleagues, they still believe the world would have been much better off if Motorola had not antagonized them and [had] let them do what they wanted to do.

“There are people who believe the monopoly way is the way to do things. And I have very strong feelings about that. Competition is wonderful. Competition is the way we consumers end up protecting our own rights. We can’t battle the billion dollar companies. And the only way we can do that is by buying one product versus another.”

As for AT&T’s recent announced intention to purchase T-Mobile USA, thereby making AT&T the largest U.S. wireless carrier, Cooper commented: “The carriers would very much like to have a monopoly and they work very hard to do that. They do have competition now, but there are a couple of huge companies, specifically Verizon and AT&T, that are dominant and they would like to become more dominant… And if they have a big chunk of radio channels and nobody else can use those, it gives them an effective monopoly.

“And that’s not in the public interest.”

Cooper retired from Motorola in 1983 as vice president of research and development.

Since then, he and his entrepreneurial wife and partner, Arlene Harris, have launched a number of wireless-related companies, including ArrayComm that researched smart antenna technology and the improvement of wireless networks, and GreatCall that created the Jitterbug, an easy-to-operate cell phone for seniors.

He currently heads Dyna Llc, a software “incubator” of wireless software.

“I do a lot of speaking, and some people even pay me for that,” Cooper said.

A native of Chicago, Cooper earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering on an Navy ROTC scholarship from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1950 and afterwards served in the Navy as an electronics officer on a destroyer and submarine.

Returning to civilian life, he worked briefly at Teletype, which was then part of AT&T. In 1954, he joined Motorola as a research engineer, attended classes at night to earn his master’s in electrical engineering from IIT in 1957. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from IIT in 2004,

Asked if he received royalties for his invention of the cell phone, Cooper said: “When I joined Motorola, they gave me a dollar and that was compensation for all my future inventions and intellectual property. So the answer is ‘No.’ On the other hand, Motorola took care of me very well. I have no ill feelings at all.

“My bosses were the most wonderful teachers in the world. I was not a typical corporate guy, but they tolerated me for 29 years, gave me free rein and let me do all kinds of creative and interesting things.

“My group did the first radio control of traffic. We did the first nationwide mobile dial system for car phones. We did the first nationwide radio pagers. And we did the first radios that policemen carried in Chicago in 1967. Cellular was just kind of a follow-on to all these others.”

But, he conceded, had he received a royalty of a penny for every cell phone sold, he would be ahead by about $50 million.

“Yeah,” he said thinking about it, “I could use $50 million. So could you,” he guessed.

These days, he said, “I’m trying to stay current with both technology and people. You can’t separate technology and people. They are the same. The worst thing an engineer can do is to get carried away with the technology for the sake of technology.

“Technology means the application of science to make the lives of people better. Technology is the easy part for me. People are the hard part.

“So my latest adventure is trying to understand the social network — Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. And what I discovered over the past six or eight months, is that these forms of communication, not those [specific] applications, but that kind of communication is going to be another revolution. It’s going to be bigger than the cellular revolution. And why? Because it’s going to provide us with new tools for collaboration, so that when we try to solve problems, whether in business or healthcare, we can use everybody’s minds in a more efficient and effective way.

“The social network is just the seed, but that’s going to grow into a way of making humanity solve its problems in a much more efficient way.”

Fast Facts

Name

: Martin Cooper

Distinction

: While working as a research engineer at Motorola, Cooper was credited with inventing the handheld mobile cell phone. He retired from Motorola in 1983 and with his wife launched various companies in the wireless technology field. He was recently a nominee for “The Man Who Saved the World Award.”

Resident of:

Del Mar

Born:

Chicago, Illinois, 82 years ago

Education:

Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago, 1950, and later, while working and studying at night, went on to earn his master’s degree in electrical engineering from IIT in 1957; in 2004, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from IIT.

Family:

He and his wife, Arlene Harris, have been together for 32 years. She has been called “The First Lady of Wireless.” He has two children and four grandchildren.

Interests:

Skiing, tennis, and running on the trails in Torrey Pines

Current reading:

“Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” by Malcolm Gladwell; and “Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of Everything,” by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Also books on social networking.

Favorite films:

Action, science fiction and fantasy films.

Favorite getaway

: Vail, Colo.

Philosophy:

“It’s important to live a long time, but it’s more important to live healthily and productively … and with a positive attitude…Have good genes and respect them.”

   
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