Cell phone developer honored

Del Mar’s Martin Cooper to get Prince of Asturias award

Without the visionary thinking and tenacity of Martin Cooper, we might still be making phone calls from our cars rather than just about anywhere and everywhere else.

After AT&T developed the car phone in the late 1960s, Cooper directed his development teams at Motorola to think portable and wireless.

“It’s such a natural thing,” said Cooper, a Del Mar resident. “People are mobile, naturally and inherently mobile.”

The first cellular phone took about three months to create, and in 1973 Cooper made the first demonstration call from the two-pound cell phone on the streets of New York. Not even cordless phones existed then so people stopped and stared.

“They were very much in awe,” he said. “People just could not believe it.”

It took 10 years to commercialize the cell phone, and about another 10 years get the price down from $4,000 a phone to be widely adopted. Today, 3 billion people use cell phones, about half the world’s population.

“We knew it was going to happen someday,” Cooper said. “We didn’t think it would happen quite so fast.”

Cooper’s pioneering work on the cell phone has earned him many honors. In June, he won Spain’s prestigious Prince of Asturias award in technical and scientific research, along with Raymond Tomlinson, another American who helped develop e-mail.

“It is a great honor,” said the 80-year-old, who will receive the award in Spain in October. The Prince of Asturias awards are considered the Latin equivalent to the Nobel Prize, given in several categories to such influential individuals as Nelson Mandela and Al Gore.

The award jury cited the cell phone and e-mail as among the greatest technological innovations of our time, revolutionizing how people communicate, contributing to the spread of knowledge and advancing the United Nations goal to enable every citizen to exercise their right to communicate.

“It used be when you called somebody you called a place, now when you call on a cell phone, you are a calling a person,” Cooper said.

Cooper was born in Chicago in 1928 and after serving as a submariner in the Navy, earned his electrical engineering degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1950. He worked for one year at AT&T, but hated working at a large company. He transferred to Motorola where he stayed for 29 years, becoming the corporate director of research and development.

Cooper developed many other wireless technologies preceding the cell phone, including two-way portable radio systems and the first high capacity pager. He was inspired to create the cell phone after being disgusted with idea of AT&T “shackling people to their cars when they wanted a telephone.”

To Cooper, the cell phone is about freedom, and “the only way to communicate with complete freedom is wirelessly,” he said.

While developing the cell phone was profound, Cooper said a more significant accomplishment was convincing the Federal Communications Commission to allow competition to provide cellular service, rather than grant a monopoly to AT&T. This opened the door for the cell phone to succeed and the car phone to become a thing of the past.

“The cell phone is part of Marty’s story, but certainly not all of it,” said Arlene Harris, Cooper’s wife, whose own influential career in wireless includes the creation of the easy-to-use Jitterbug cell phone. “He keeps thinking, keeps agitating, keeps stirring things up.”

Cooper went on to start numerous successful companies in the wireless industry, including the Cellular Business Systems, which dominated the cellular billing industry with 75 percent market share before being sold to Cincinnati Bell.

In 1992, he founded ArrayComm to develop “smart” antennas and make transmission stations more efficient, thereby greatly reducing the cost of providing cellular service.

“Focusing the energy right to the phone allows us to talk to many, many more people,” Cooper explained. He still actively serves as ArrayComm’s chairman and travels the world educating others about how to better manage the wireless network.

Someday, in the not too distant future, Cooper envisions lowering the cost enough to get rid of all the wires and to bring the other half of the world’s population into the network.

“We are about to see a revolution,” he said, “not only in applications, but in the industry itself, more people competing and more and more services.”

And Cooper plans to be leading the charge for as long as possible.

“I’ve had so many different firsts in my life,” he said. “I’m lucky enough, healthy enough, strong enough to keep contributing.”