In celebration of the first cellphone call 40 years ago by Motorola engineer Martin Cooper, I invite you to read and reflect on where we have been and where we are going.
Happy 40th birthday, cellphone! Yes, it was 40 years ago on April 3, 1973, that Martin Cooper, a Motorola engineer, made the first successful cellphone call.
My colleague, Karen Field, told the story of that first call in one of the many articles celebrating the 40th anniversary of EE Times which is also this year. The big brick cellphone was a triumph of semiconductor and systems design at the time. She notes the somewhat unsung enginner "Don Linder figured out how to combine some 300 to 400 parts together into a working phone."
I don’t see a midlife crisis in the works for this device. Quite the contrary, we are still in the midst of a mobile boom that has not yet hit its peak, transforming our industry and our lives.
The amazing feats of chip and systems engineering just keep happening. They have given us the superphones so many of use depend on every day to keep in touch with the world via voice, text, music and video.
Today we live in an industry fueled by the mobile business and its siblings the cloud network and the data center. Incidentally, next month it will be the 40th anniversary of Bob Metcalfe’s memo seen as the birthday of Ethernet, the core technology of the cloud and data center.
I invite you to take a moment out of the rushed pace of our now mobile lives and give the story of the first cellphone a read. Then I’d invite you to reflect for a moment about where we have been and where we are going and weigh in with your thoughts.
What technologies are being demonstrated today that may look like big ugly bricks but could reshape the world when they mature? What will the cellphone look like when it is ready for retirement in say another 40 years?
BTW, in 2008 another colleague, Rich Nass, did a video interview with Cooper at the former Embedded Systems Conference (now Design West). You can see that video here, or check out many other interviews with Marty on YouTube--maybe even watch one on your smartphone.
As one who had a small part in Marty's team in the "batcave" I can attest that we started working on TRUE cellular networks in 1970! I've posted elsewhere (on the blog with the Marty Cooper interview video) in more detail. I have to admit I was skeptical about whether we could ever figure out the right hand-off processes.
Remember when one could buy a fake carphone antenna to make it look like you had a phone built into the car? That would hardly be a mark of prestige now.
In 1973 I think if you'd asked people to predict what they'd see in 2013, I bet they'd have predicted we'd have landed on Mars and would have (huge) HAL-like computers and robots to wash the dishes, but they probably would never have guessed that even children would own phones that made the Star Trek communicators look bulky and primitive. It's so hard to forecast.
Exactly. And beyond that, although perhaps not so popular in the US yet, a whole lot of people around the world get their Internet broadband connections at home, as well as on the go, via 3G. Soon 4G, no doubt.
So that's why my emphasis on what transpired 40 years ago is not on that walkie-talkie looking gadget itself, but on the word "cellular."
As remarkable as the evolution of the mobile phone was from a "brick" to a pocket-sized device, I find it even more remarkable how rapidly the pocket-sized phone of the mid-2000s evolved to today's pocket-sized connected computers with their incredibly wide variety of apps -- and that for many users, the fact that these devices can also make voice calls is almost incidental.
Thanks for commemorating the anniversary of such an important technology that most of us take for granted these days. Reading this story really does make me reflect on my own career, and I am grateful that I had a chance to at least play a (very) small part in this industry. As an engineering student at the University of Illinois in the 1980s, many of my friends went on to work at Motorola after graduation. I was fortunate enough to join some of them a few years later and worked on battery and system power management technology for mobile phones during some of the “glory years” in the 1990s. Now, as an applications engineer at TI, I still see the influence of the mobile phone on our work at the IC level every day. The system-level need drives the component technology, and new components enable better system solutions. The circle of life…
There have been tremendous changes over the past 40 years – the components available, the design philosophies we follow, the engineering work environment, and of course the economics that drive the industry as a whole. One lesson we can we learn from history is that sometimes, brilliant ideas can take a long time to really pay off. It was nearly twenty years after this first phone call before mobile phones started becoming commonplace. It was another ten years before they became ubiquitous. During that time, entire new segments of our industry were created. Batteries, displays, antennas, connectors, and of course semiconductors have made huge strides over this time period. I expect that Mr. Cooper could not have fully envisioned the scale of the revolution that would be launched because of his invention. He and his team have changed the lives of billions of people as a result.
Scary-amazing that it's already been 40 years. But I don't see the actual innovation that of a cell phone per se. The telephone instrument looked very much like a walkie-talkie, and we had those for decades prior. No big deal there. We already knew how to tie wireless sets to the telephone network.
The problem to solve was to achieve scale. And for that, the super-duper invention was that of cellular communications. In cellular (this very much relates to the article on TV white spaces), you shorten the RF range enormously, and you reuse the same RF frequency channels over and over again, in a small area. Not city-wide, but only a few blocks at most.
Most importantly, for this to be practical, you have to automate the frequent re-tuning necessary, as you jump from one cell to the next.
That's the huge innovation. The phone instrument is just about immaterial. Cellular provides ubiquitous RF coverage for any type of comms. Fashionable iPhones are but one of the uses of this great innovation.
A personal reminiscence:
I was oblivious to the first 15 years of the cellphone.
In 1988, I was a tech reporter in Hong Kong, noticing the CT2 (cordless telephone, second generation) handsets. They could call out but not receive calls, so users also wore a pager. Later models had integrated pagers and were the object of conspicuous consumption for messengers.
When I returned to the US in 1993 my realtor had a car phone. I thought, "what a luxury!"
Within six years I was issued a Nokia 3210 candy bar handset, my first work phone. I thought I died and went to heaven. A phone in my pocket!
A few years back I was upgraded to a Blackberry--email at my fingertips--Wow!
Now I carry an iPhone 3G--the Web in my pocket.
Along the way fortunes have been made and lost. Cities of Foxconn assemblers have emerged in China. And now China is making its own cellphones and cellphone chips as my colleague Junko Yoshida writes on a weekly basis.
Happy 40th Anniversary to both EE Times and Cellular Technology.
I can't help agreeing with the importance of system engineering as the cellular technology is invented. With a system perspective, technology will go to next level and more products can be build better and faster. One of the many great features of cellular technology is frequency reused. The system capacity can be increased by shrinking the size and shape of a cell. What a brilliant idea. Today, some of the key features of the cloud based technology is data redundancy and all-on service availability. Both can be achieved by leveraging different OS services, DNS, Apache Cassandra. I am with Rick. I am looking forward to what the world is like when all these great technologies invented in the 70s' are towards the retirement age.
Thank you, Rick for the article and video.
Tech leaders need to believe in their vision while not ignoring their failures, according to speakers at this year’s Global Leadership Conference organized by alumni of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). Speakers also encouraged attendees to combine technological vision with a focus on giving back to society.