The History of the Cell Phone

Cell phones are an integral part of modern life. So much of our lives run through them that if we go without them even for just a few hours, we're likely to feel stressed and anxious. This was not always the case; believe it or not, there was a time when cell phones didn't exist. In fact, it wasn't even really that long ago.

How did we go from not having any cell phones to being virtually incapable of living without them? It was a long process of technological innovation that is still very much going on today. Considering how quickly all of this happened, it's safe to say we are in the midst of a cell phone revolution.

The History of the Cell Phone 1908 – Present

Here's a brief timeline of all the significant events in cell phone history, but you can read up about each one below to fully understand how we got to where we are today.

1908 – First Patent Issued for Mobile Telephone

Believe it or not, people have been thinking about mobile phones for more than a century. It's not hard to see why. After the telephone was invented, it had one obvious limitation: it required a cord. Figuring out how to make one without all the wires would have been on the minds of scientists from the early days of telephone technology.

In fact, in 1908, a scientist at the Oakland Transcontinental Aerial Telephone and Power Company filed for a patent from the US patent office and received one for a mobile telephone.

However, when they tried to bring the phone to market, it didn't work. The company faced fraud charges, which were never proven, and gave up on the idea of a mobile phone. Despite this failed attempt, it marks the first time in history that someone made a serious attempt to create a mobile phone.

1926 – Mobile Phones Installed on German Trains

Starting in 1918, the German train companies began toying with the idea of installing telephones on their trains. Shortly after, in 1924, they began testing it out, and after a successful trial, they installed mobile phones in their first-class train cars traveling between Hamburg and Berlin.

Although an exclusive service, this was the first time anyone had managed to build and use a mobile phone successfully.

1946 – Mobile Phones Make it Into Cars

Throughout World War II, the army had been using handheld radio transceivers which allowed commanding officers to communicate across long distances. These devices were a mix between a radio and a phone, though they looked a lot like phones.

After the war, AT&T built on this technology and launched "Mobile Telephone Service." Phones were installed in select automobiles, and drivers could communicate with one another so long as they could access one of the available radio channels in the city in which they were driving.

This technology was very primitive, and because it was using an analog signal, anyone nearby could interrupt and eavesdrop on the calls from the cars.

While not very practical, some of the technology behind this system made future mobile phone technology, mainly the repeated re-use of frequencies in a small local area.

1965 – AT&T Releases Improved Mobile Telephone Service

AT&T's Mobile Telephone Service brought phones into cars, but few people could or wanted to pay for this service. Nevertheless, AT&T continued working on it, and in 1965 they released Improved Mobile Telephone Service (IMTS).

Some of the improvements they made were to allow customers to dial numbers on their own and make the equipment smaller and lighter.

There were never more than three channels in a given area with the previous service, which meant that only three people could make a call at a time. Plus, to make a call, you needed to go through an operator. Also, the equipment weighed 80 pounds, a significant addition to any car, let alone the ones in the 1940s.

These new improvements made the mobile phone much more popular, so much so that AT&T had to limit the number of customers it allowed onto the network at one time to make sure it would work properly.

Still a relatively simple technology, the IMTS proved that Americans were hungry for the ability to make phone calls while they were on the move. This encouraged phone companies to continue working to create a mobile phone that would be viable for commercial use.

1973 – The First Call on a Mobile Phone

 

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Today, mobile phones are tiny devices that we carry in our pockets, but they weren't always like this. When Martin Cooper, a Motorola executive, made the first-ever phone call on a mobile phone, he did so on a device that weighed 2.4 pounds and looked a lot more like a brick than a phone.

Who did he call? Well, none other than Dr. Joel Engel, an engineer at Bell Labs, Motorola's biggest competitor. It was the ultimate taunt, but they couldn't chat for long. The phone Cooper used had a battery life of just 30 minutes, and it needed 10 hours to reach a full charge. Hardly a practical technology, but a milestone nonetheless.

In addition, this first phone call was placed on an analog network, now often called 0G (the first version of the 4G and 5G networks we use today). This was not a commercially available network, as Motorola set it up more or less for the sole purpose of testing the prototype phone, yet it laid the groundwork for future networks.

1979 – The First Cellular Network Launches in Japan

Just six years after Martin Cooper placed the first mobile phone call, Japan launched the world's first commercially automated cellular network. Now called 1G (first generation), it was an analog phone system that made it possible for mobile phones to be sold and used on a much larger scale than before.

Analog networks are different from the digital networks we use today in that the data that's transmitted, mainly the sound of your voice, is simply raised to a higher frequency. This allows it to travel further distances and be picked up by receivers in a different location. The signal is then downloaded onto another device, the frequency is lowered, and the person on the other end can hear what you're saying.

At the time, this technology was groundbreaking. Yet analog networks had significant limitations in that they could become crowded and because they were limited in how far they could transmit signals. Still, without this 1G network, the cell phone revolution never would have started.

Just two years later, in 1981, a 1G network launched in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, and then in 1983, Ameritech launched its 1G network, opening the door for the world's first mobile phone to enter into the story.

1983 – The First Mobile Phone Hits the Market

After Motorola executive Martin Cooper demonstrated that his company could make a mobile phone, he and his team set out to develop a model that could be sold to the public. The heavy, short-lived model he used was hardly fit for the consumer market.

They came up with the DynaTAC. It still took ten hours to charge the device, and it still only lasted about 30 minutes, but it was a bit lighter, though not much. One nice feature was that it could remember up to 30 phone numbers, one of the world's first versions of speed dial.

The DynaTAC used the 1G wireless network just launched in the United States, but that mimicked what had already been installed in several European countries.

The price? A cool $4,000.

While technically the first mobile phone available to consumers, it was far from accessible. Instead, it was geared towards the most affluent markets, but it was still a big moment in the world of mobile phones. To celebrate it, the folks in the industry made a spectacle of it.

Dadic Meilahn placed a call from his Mercedes to Bob Barnett, who was the former president of Ameritech Mobile Communications. After they hung up, Barnett dialed up a German phone number, calling the grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the first telephone.

Barnett was at Soldier Field in Chicago for this call and later called it a "real triumph."

So, while most people still couldn't afford a mobile phone, the groundwork had been laid for a true revolution.

1989 – Motorola MicroTAC Hits the Market

 

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Just six years after the release of the DynaTAC, Motorola came out with a much-improved device that was most notably way smaller than its predecessor. Still very bulky by today's standards, but you could actually put this phone into your pocket if you wanted (though this would have been comfortable.)

It was still an analog phone, and the battery only lasted a few hours. Yet that Motorola was able to dramatically reduce the size of a mobile phone in such a relatively short period helped make cell phones more accessible. Motorola set the 1990s up to be a massive decade for cell phone sales.

1991 – The first digital cellular network (2G) launches in Finland

In 1991, mobile phone technology took a giant leap forward, opening the door for the revolution that was soon to come. This significant step was creating the first digital cellular network, a switch from the analog networks in use until this point.

This network, named GSM (Global Standard for Mobile Communications), offered a few advantages over an analog system. First, it made it possible to encrypt phone conversations digitally. Previously, anyone connected to the network could listen in on another person's call so long as they were on the same channel. This was no longer possible on the GSM network.

Switching to a digital format also made it possible to use the entire radio spectrum, which meant that the network could handle more users overall.

Lastly, a digital network can transmit data signals, which in the early 1990s meant sending SMS text messages. Considering how important text messaging is today, this moment is a pretty big one in mobile phone history.

With the release of 2G, the mobile network was now ready for widespread cell phone use. However, the technology behind the phones themselves was still not quite ready. It would be several years before phones would go completely mainstream.

1991 – The lithium-ion battery hits the market

One other thing that happened in 1991 that was important for the history of mobile phones was the release of the lithium-ion battery. Remember, the first version of the cell phone took ten hours to charge, and the battery would die after just thirty minutes of use.

This was obviously not practical, but at the time, it was the best they could do. The lithium-ion battery changed everything. Not only can lithium batteries charge much more quickly, but they also hold their charges for much longer.

At first, lithium-ion batteries were not designed for mobile phones, but they soon became the standard. They are still used in modern phones. Therefore, it's hard to imagine the mobile phone revolution occurring without this vital milestone.

1992 – The First Text Message Is Sent

With the 2G network release, sending and receiving text messages via a mobile phone became possible, but it wasn't until a year later that it actually happened. Neil Papworth was a contractor engineer working with UK phone company Vodafone. He sent a text message to Richard Jarvis, then director of Vodafone, saying, "Merry Christmas."

Allegedly, Jarvis was at his company's Christmas party when he received this message. If this is true, it's likely to have kicked off some rather rowdy celebrations, for this was a momentous event.

1999 – Emojis are Invented

By the turn of the millennium, the cell phone revolution was underway. Though still not entirely mainstream, phones were getting smaller, more reliable, and more accepted in society. Soon, manufacturers would release newer, better devices, and the world would be well on its way to near-universal adoption.

However, before this happened, something else occurred that changed mobile phone history forever, though it's unlikely people knew it at the time. Designer/developer Shigetaka Kurita of Japan released his emojis.

Before this, people used emoticons, which were combinations of symbols designed to look like certain facial expressions. Emojis were pictures, and therefore a lot more fun.

When they were first invented, few phones could send and receive them. This would soon change, and now they are a fundamental part of cell phone life. It's hard to imagine our world without them.

1999 – Pay and Go Phones Hit Stores in the UK

Cost is always a limiting factor when a new technology is making its way into the market. By 1999, this was no longer the case. UK supermarkets, mainly Tesco, Sainsbury's, and Asda, began selling Pay and Go phones. These were cheap devices that didn't have service contracts. Instead, you could simply buy a certain number of minutes or text messages.

The most significant part was that they could be bought for less than £40, far cheaper than any other phone on offer at the time. This started a price war in the cell phone market, with manufacturers competing to offer more affordable phones to consumers.

All of this meant that phones were becoming increasingly accessible, expanding the market and making them more and more a part of our lives.

1999 – Blackberry Introduces the RIM

The mobile phone took a turn in 1999 when Blackberry introduced its RIM model. This was the first device offered by the Canadian phone maker, though we can't call it a phone since it couldn't make calls. However, what was unique about it is that it featured a full QWERTY keyboard and could also be used to check and send emails.

These two features are significant because they planted the seeds for the smartphone, which was just around the corner and about to change the world.

1999 – The First Camera Phone Hits the Market

Today, phones are more cameras than phones. The biggest upgrade manufacturers seem to make from one year to the next is with the camera, mainly because it is what people seem to want the most. However, there was a time when phones didn't have cameras.

All that changed in 1999 with the release of the Kyocera VP-210, though it was only available in Japan. In 2000, several other camera phones were released by Sharp and Samsung.

The first camera phone to hit US markets was the Sanyo SCP-5300, which hit stores in November 2002. At the time, it cost $400, which was very expensive. It is funny to think about since we now routinely pay $700 or more for a phone without really thinking too much about it.

Oh, how times change!

2000 – Nokia Introduces the Nokia 3310

In 2000, after everyone realized the Y2K switch wasn't going to bring the world to an end, Finnish mobile phone maker Nokia released the Nokia 3310 phone.

While compared to today's standards, this device looks relatively simple; it was a huge success when it was first released. Perhaps the most apparent characteristic of this phone that made it so successful is its size. It was one of the smallest cell phones released to date, and it was also virtually indestructible.

The Nokia 3310 has gone down as one of the most successful mobile phones of all time in terms of sales. Throughout its history, Nokia sold more than 126 million units.

In addition, the Nokia was set up for the 3G network, which was ready to be rolled out.

2001 – 3G launches

Throughout the 1990s, cell phone use grew dramatically. Cheaper, smaller devices made the technology more accessible to the masses, and people seemed to love the idea of being able to use a phone wherever they went.

However, with the number of mobile phone users increasing so rapidly, one of the things holding back further growth was the 2G network that the phones used. Therefore, throughout the 1990s, telecommunications companies were hard at work developing the next generation of mobile network, which they aptly named "3G."

Besides allowing for more users, the other major improvement 3G brought was faster data transfer speeds. This meant that it was now possible to access the internet using a phone in addition to sending and receiving text messages. This was theoretically possible with 2G networks, but the data rates were far too slow for this use.

The other clear benefit of 3G was that it was more secure. It was better able to encrypt data, which ensured that all conversations, whether spoken or through text, remained private.

In the beginning, there weren't that many 3G devices, and data rates were expensive. Yet shortly after its release, it became clear that the internet and phones would be forever linked.

2004 – The Motorola Razr V3 Is Released

 

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In the early 2000s, the trend in the cell phone world was smaller and more compact. Motorola answered with the Razr. Named because it was as close to "razor" thin as a phone could be at the time, it also came packed with features, such as 3G connectivity, a VGA camera, video recording, web browsing, downloadable ringtones, and more.

It was hugely popular and was one of the best-selling devices in the final days of the "non-smartphone" era.

2007 – The iPhone is Released

Perhaps no other moment in cell phone history is as momentous as the release of the iPhone. At the time, no other phone looked anything like it, and while people scoffed at its high price tag, it soon became one of the best-selling mobile devices in the country, launching a revolution along the way.

The most significant difference with the iPhone was it was all-touchscreen. Until this point, phones with full keyboards had clunky physical ones (like the Blackberry). Apple completely changed all of this.

One interesting thing about this first iPhone is that it was not 3G-enabled, making it somewhat behind the times. Yet, it was so advanced in every other way that it still managed to be a game-changer.

Just one year later, Apple released the iPhone 3G, which made use of this newer, better network, making its best-selling item that much more desirable.

2009 – 4G LTE Begins

With the release and popularity of the iPhone, it became clear that the 3G network was no longer enough. Long before this critical event, the telecommunications companies had been working on the 4G LTE network to account for the growing number of users on their networks.

Once released, this allowed for considerably faster data transfer rates, which would allow people to stream audio and video from their mobile devices and browse the web at speeds similar to those of landline connections.

Though it took some time to reach across the entire country, 4G LTE networks soon became the standard, and they remain so today.

2010 – Samsung Galaxy S Is Released

Before 2010, Apple stood alone in the smartphone market. This all changed in 2010 when Samsung released the Galaxy S.

Equipped with a 5-megapixel rear camera and 0.3-megapixel front-facing camera (not available on iPhones just yet), it was a powerful alternative to the iPhone. Soon, it would be selling just as well, starting the war between Apple and Samsung that is still going on today.

Both manufacturers now release new phones every year, with each one a slight improvement over the previous year's model. Apple remains the most popular phone company in the United States, but Samsung sells more units worldwide.

2019 – 5G Networks Roll Out

A little more than a decade after the smartphone's release, and pretty much everyone has one. This has put considerable strain on 4G LTE networks, but so has the increasing number of connected devices. The sheer number of devices connected via the Internet of Things (IoT) makes it hard for 4G networks to deliver as they always have.

In response, we get 5G. With a significantly expanded bandwidth, 5G networks can handle many more users, and they are also able to deliver much faster speeds. Currently, 5G is available in most major cities, but only a few devices can access it. This will soon change, and 5G will become the norm.

2021 – There Are 4 Billion Smartphone Users in the World

Just four decades after the first phone call was placed on a mobile phone, and a little more than two decades after phones really went mainstream, a little more than half of the global population has a smartphone. If this isn't indicative of a revolution, what is?

The Future of Mobile Phones

Depute first being conceived of more than a century ago, mobile phones have gone from expensive pieces of niche tech to staples of modern life in a relatively short period.

Today, phones are getting more and more powerful, yet sales are starting to level as people get tired of buying a new one year after year. This may trigger a change in the market, but who can say for sure? The one thing we do know is that phones are here to stay, and if there is a change, it's likely to happen at lightning speed.