The cellphone revolution kicked off 40 years ago today

On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper placed the world's first cellphone call. The rest is history. 

Reuters
Engineer Martin Cooper holds the Motorola DynaTAC phone, the world's first commercial handheld cellular phone, and his current mobile phone during a news conference in Oviedo, Spain, in 2009.

It's easy to forget, in an age when our iPhones and Galaxies do everything for us – from storing our music libraries to pointing us to the nearest taco joint – that smart phones were not always smart.

In the beginning, they were cellular telephones – heavy, extremely expensive chunks of plastic with extendable antennas and all the aesthetic appeal of a brick. 

So this afternoon, let us all observe a moment of silence for the original cellphone, the first of which was pressed into use exactly 40 years ago today, on April 3, 1973. The device in question was a 10-inch DynaTAC handset, and it was built by a Motorola team headed up by inventor Martin Cooper. In fact, Mr. Cooper himself placed the first call on the DynaTAC, phoning up the head of research at Bell Labs while standing outside an NYC hotel. 

"The first cell phone model weighed over one kilo" – or two and a half pounds – "and you could only talk for 20 minutes before the battery ran out," Cooper told the audience at a privacy conference back in 2009. "Which is just as well because you would not be able to hold it up for much longer." 

But Cooper and his team at Motorola spent the next decade honing the technology, and in 1983, the first commercially-available cell phone, the DynaTAC 8000x, went on sale. The asking price was $3,995. Cooper, for his part, has since said that although he knew he was on the cutting edge of technology in 1973, he and his colleagues had little inkling of the massive smart phone industry the DynaTAC would spawn. 

"If you think about it, in 1973, when we made the first cell phone call, there were no digital personal computers," he told an interviewer recently. "There were no digital cameras. The internet didn't exist in any form at all. In fact, there were no large-scale integrated circuits. None of the things that are in a smartphone today could have even been envisioned in 1973 and I hate to say it but we didn't expect that to happen." 

In related news, this week Cooper received the $100,000 Marconi Prize, an annual award named after Nobel laureate and inventor Guglielmo Marconi

"Today, what [Cooper] foresaw seems pretty elementary," Vint Cerf, vice chairman of the Marconi Society, said in a statement. "But the idea of making telecommunications ‘person-centric’ instead of tied to a particular place – a car, home or telephone booth – caused a tectonic shift in the industry." 

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