Forty years ago, Martin Cooper, a Motorola executive, stood on a street corner in Manhattan and pulled off one of engineering’s biggest public relation coups ever: Cooper, an engineer from Motorola, made the world’s first call on a handheld, mobile cellular phone—in public—to a colleague at AT&T, a rival in the high-stakes race to develop the technology.
Although it would be ten years before the first phones were commercially available, the call was an important milestone for Motorola. The company needed a dazzling demonstration because it was taking on AT&T, which at the time was the biggest company in the world, to prevent the Bell System from gaining a monopoly in cellular technology.
“I have this really clear vision of people standing around gawking at us while we made this phone call in the middle of New York City,” recalls Cooper, chuckling with delight at the memory. He admitted that it wasn’t really the first call made, though. Engineers made hundreds of test calls in the weeks leading up to the demonstration.
Right place at the right time
Currently, with his wife Arlene Harris, running DynaLLC, an incubator for various wireless development activities, Cooper has been involved with mobile phone technology for virtually his entire career. After earning a B.S. at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a stint in the Navy, and an M.S. in Electrical Engineering, he went to work as a research engineer at Teletype Corporation in 1953. While his job there was stimulating, he left a year later to work for Motorola, the leading manufacturer of radio telephones and dispatch systems. “I wanted to do engineering and with Motorola I saw the opportunity to work on products that were actually going to ship in the near future,” says Cooper.
As an engineering manager, Cooper worked on many new products, including the first push button mobile phones. He soon became a specialist in digital electronics and was one of the first engineers to put transistors into a commercial application.
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“Our first all-transistor mobile telephone had less than 100 transistors, but we were always trying to reduce that number because they cost us 50 cents each!” recalls Martin. He marvels over the fact that transistor counts in the billions are routine today.
The idea of Motorola developing a cellular telephone was an obvious next step. “We had been dreaming about this technology for a long time and had people in our own research labs working on all of the parts,” says Martin. “But though I knew that it could be done, at the same time we were pushing the technology envelope on almost every front.”
Nobody, for example, had ever built an antenna operating at 1 GHz in the small form factor needed. And nobody had ever designed a frequency synthesizer that could work reasonably well with low power drain. In fact, very few people were designing anything at all for battery operation.
“We needed power amps, we needed receiver amps, we needed synthesizers and we had to go to experts for every one of them, and then someone had to integrate the whole thing together,” says Cooper.