On April 3, 1973, Marty Cooper stood on the corner of Sixth Avenue in New York and pulled a phone book out of his pocket.
He then punched a number into a large cream-colored device and held it to his ear as passers-by stared at him.
Mr. Cooper, an engineer at Motorola, called his counterpart at rival Bell Laboratories to triumphantly announce that he was calling from a “personal, hand-held, portable cell phone.”
He remembers that there was silence at the end of the line.
“I think he was grinding his teeth,” the 94-year-old says with a laugh.
Bell Laboratories instead focused on developing a phone for cars, he says. “Can you believe it? So we’ve been trapped in our homes and offices with this copper wire for over 100 years – and now they’re going to trap us in our cars!”
Needless to say, Mr Cooper and Motorola disagreed that this was the way forward – and history proved them right.
The basics of how the first call worked haven’t changed much. The phone converts your voice into an electrical signal that modulates radio waves. The radio wave goes to the mast; the mast sends your voice to the person you are calling, and by reversing the process, that person can then hear you speak.
Except there weren’t many masts back then… But you get the idea.
However, today’s cell phones are unrecognizable compared to the early Motorola model.
A commercial version of Marty Cooper’s prototype, the Motorola Dynatac 8000X, was launched 11 years after the first call, in 1984. If bought today, it would cost the equivalent of £9,500 ($11,700), says Ben Wood, who runs the Mobile Phone Museum. .
“It was basically just dial a number and make a call,” explains Mr Wood.
“No messages, no camera. Thirty minutes of talk time, 10 hours of battery charge, about 12 hours of standby time and a 6 inch (15cm) antenna on top.”
It also weighed 790g (1.7lb) – almost four times more than the iPhone 14 at 172g.
But Mr Cooper remains unfazed by the design of mobile phones in 2023 – although he admits he never predicted that phones would one day be pocket-sized “supercomputers” with cameras and internet access.
“I think the phone today is not optimal. It’s really not a very good phone in many ways,” he says.
“Just think about it. You take a piece of plastic and glass that’s flat—and you put it against the curve of your head; you’re holding your hand in an awkward position; you have to [first] get an app to do these amazing things it can do.”
He believes that in the future, artificial intelligence will either create or select phone owners’ apps for them, depending on their individual needs.
He also believes that one day devices will monitor our health, maximize our productivity and improve our lives immeasurably.
At one point he even suggests that they could help eliminate wars.
“Mobile won’t do it by itself,” he admits. “But it will be a central part of this great future.
Despite his complaints about its modern counterparts, Mr. Cooper seems to remain secretly enamored with the device he first put to his ear on a New York street corner 50 years ago.
“We’re still at the very beginning of the mobile phone revolution,” he declares.