On April 3, 1973, in New York City, Motorola engineer Martin Cooper made the first call on a cell phone. Hoisting a 2.2-pound device, the 44-year-old called his rival at Bell Laboratories to gloat.
“Sophisticated New Yorkers gaped at the sight of someone actually moving around while making a phone call,” he later said. “I made numerous calls, including one where I crossed the street while talking to a New York radio reporter—probably one of the more dangerous things I have ever done in my life.”
The prototype clasped to his ear was a primitive device: Shaped like a lunch box, it connected to a base station on the roof of the present-day Alliance Capital Building on Sixth Avenue. It would not hit the market for another 10 years. Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000x, which was unveiled in 1983, cost $3,500.
Even Cooper—who mused that the invention of cell phones represented a kind of emancipation from “the infamous copper wire”—could not have anticipated the extent to which mobile phones have transformed daily life. On Tuesday night, Cooper and four of his colleagues—including Joel S. Engel, his rival at Bell Laboratories—were feted at a black-tie dinner at Union Station. Together, Cooper, Engel, Richard H. Frenkiel, Thomas Haug, and Yoshihisa Okumura are regarded as the coinventors of the cell phone. It was a global undertaking: Three are American, one is Norwegian, and one is Japanese.
The five men will share the Charles Stark Draper Prize awarded by the National Academy of Engineering. The annual $500,000 jackpot was established in 1988 to honor “Doc” Draper, the “father of inertial navigation” and an aeronautical-engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was instrumental in the Apollo moon landings.
Born to Ukrainian immigrants in Chicago, Cooper attended the Illinois Institute of Technology and then fought for his adoptive homeland as a seaman during the Korean War. Over the course of 29 years at Motorola, he worked as a division manager and later as head of R&D. Since leaving the company in 1983, Cooper has pursued several business ventures, including ArrayComm, GreatCall, and Dyna, where he is president. As befits an inventor, the 84-year-old has a snow-white beard and mane.
Bell Labs conceived of a cellular network as early as 1947, but it was not until the 1960s that Engel, Frenkiel, and the late Phil Porter devised a network of low-power transmitters and receivers that provided service in small coverage areas, or “cells.” In 1971, they filed a technical report—a blueprint for the country’s first cellular telephone system—with the Federal Communications Commission.
At the same time, multiple engineers around the world were pursuing the same revolutionary idea. At Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Research Laboratories in Tokyo, Yoshihisa Okumura was sketching a template for what would become, in 1979, the world’s first fully integrated commercial cell-phone system. Meanwhile, in the frozen tundra of Scandinavia, Thomas Haug helped develop the Nordic Mobile Technology system, which provided analog service across the region.
These disparate threads converged into a single global narrative when, in the 1990s, cell phones ceased to be a luxury item and saturated industrialized and developing countries alike.
This article appears in the Feb. 21, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.