As a child, Arlene Harris sat on the laps of the switchboard operators at her parents’ mobile telephone business, her first exposure to a nascent industry and a springboard to innovations that have helped shape the way people communicate around the globe.
Harris, 65, a Del Mar resident, has initiated major advancements in the industry, from computerized systems to activate new cell phones, to prepaid calling plans to a cell phone service designed for seniors and people with disabilities.
Along the way, she has earned numerous distinctions: in 2007, she became the first woman inducted into the Wireless Hall of Fame, and was given the nickname “First Lady of Wireless” by a journalist. Her husband and business partner, Martin Cooper, inventor of the first portable cellular phone, is a fellow Wireless Hall of Fame inductee. Harris also holds some 15 patents related to her inventions and ideas.
Earlier this year, Harris was named one of the “10 Cool Women of 2013” by the Girl Scouts of San Diego, an award bestowed annually by the nonprofit group.
Long before Harris launched companies and put her inventions into practice, she was a 12-year-old girl in Los Angeles, where her parents gave her a job as a switchboard operator at their mobile communications company, Industrial Communications Systems.
For six years, Harris worked regular shifts when she wasn’t in school, connecting calls for the company’s 350 or so customers, whose mobile telephones were mounted in their cars. She listened to the conversations so she would know when to disconnect and connect calls by plugging cables into the switchboard.
Among the conversations she monitored were those of lawyers, real estate brokers, celebrities (including Jerry Lewis, Carol Burnett and Milton Berle), drug dealers, men cheating on their wives and truckers stranded on the freeway.
“Because I was listening to the phone calls, I was learning how the world works,” she said. “I got to know at a very young age what it takes to do business and how people interacted. I think that had a profound effect on my instincts and insights about how to solve problems later in my life.”
She earned enough money to buy a 1964 Chevelle, and during high school, she raced it at a local drag strip on weekends.
“I was good at it,” she said of her racing days. “That was what I call my misspent youth.”
Due to a reading disorder, Harris didn’t feel college was right for her so, after high school, she took a job in the airline industry, where she worked in marketing and helped develop automated systems for ticketing, passenger processing and other functions. She did attend some college classes.
Later, she and her husband started a company that provided billing services for cellular customers, and she was the driving force behind new systems to automate the activation of new cellular phones, which cut down the waiting time for customers from five days to just a few hours.
She also launched the first pre-paid cellular service, which she said eventually expanded access to cell phones for people throughout the world, who could not pass the credit checks needed to establish cellular service with a major carrier.