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Saturday, April 3, 2010

37 years ago: Motorola’s first cellphone

A wonderful blog called “Today in History” runs a series of historic engineering firsts. (An RSS feed is of course available.)

On April 3, 1973, Motorola made the first phone call on its cell phone. The event is now remembered due to the indefatigable self-promotion of Martin Cooper, the point man for Motorola’s engineering efforts in its rivalry with AT&T. (My original dissertation topic was the development of the US mobile phone industry in the 1970s and 1980s, so this backstory is familiar territory that I captured in a book chapter.)

This example demonstrates the problem with the whole “this day in history” view of technological innovation. While AT&T began deploying mobile phones in the 1940s, Douglas Ring of AT&T invented the cellular phone idea as a way to reuse scarce radio frequencies. However, AT&T and then Motorola spent decades fighting TV broadcasters at the FCC to gain necessary spectrum.

Cooper and Motorola certainly deserve credit for envisioning the cellphone as a handset (even if brick-sized) rather than a carphone. But there were many milestones in the AT&T and Motorola demonstration systems from the 1970s until the FCC granted permission for the official launch in October 1983.

The previous blog posting also demonstrates the limitation, with April 1, 1976 remembered to be the founding day for the Apple Computer Company. The Apple I was an interesting circuit board, but the mass-produced Apple II (a complete computer with a case and keyboard) in 1977 is perhaps a more significant milestone.

The blog is inspirational to any aspiring engineer — existing or nascent entrepreneur — for summarizing major milestones in technological innovation that provide business opportunities for established firms like Motorola, startups like Apple, or even an occasional college professor like Charles Townes (inventor of the maser).

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