The mobile phone changed the world as much as any invention in history. We use our mobile devices to text our friends, look up directions, check the weather report, read the news, and listen to podcasts. Most of us are so attached to our mobile devices that it’s become difficult to imagine a world without them. Here’s the story of how the mobile phone went from a far-fetched idea to a constant presence in your pocket.
Before the Mobile Phone
You probably already know the name of the man who invented the first telephone: Alexander Graham Bell. The Scottish-born inventor made the first successful telephone call on March 10, 1876. What you might not have known, however, is that Bell also laid the groundwork for the mobile phone. In 1880, he successfully tested an invention he called the photophone, a variation on the telephone that transmitted sound using a light beam. The value of Bell’s second great discovery wouldn’t be known for many more years.
The Car Phone
There were numerous attempts to make wireless telephones over the subsequent decades, even as the telephone itself became an indispensable part of modern life. They were a common device in science-fiction stories and spy thrillers. But the true precursor to the mobile phone was the car phone. The first car phones were oversized and bulky, and their service range didn’t extend far. Only when cellular phone technology was developed did car phones become practical. After the first cellular system began service in 1979, car phones became a popular feature.
The First Mobile Phone Call
In the meantime, Martin Cooper, an inventor at the communications company Motorola, was developing the world’s first mobile phone. He envisioned a device that would change the world, predicting that where telephone numbers had once been associated with locations, they would one day be associated with individuals. The prototype mobile phone that the Motorola team developed was known as DynaTAC. On April 3, 1973, Cooper and his fellow inventor John F. Mitchell demonstrated the mobile phone by making a call in front of a roomful of reporters. Later, Cooper said that the inspiration for the mobile phone was the wrist phone used by the comic-strip detective Dick Tracy.
DynaTAC Rules the Market
The DynaTAC became the first commercially available mobile phone in the early 1980s. A single phone cost nearly $4,000—or, in today’s dollars, nearly $10,000. You could talk on the DynaTAC for about a half-hour before you needed to recharge it—and a full recharge took nearly 10 hours. It was more than a foot tall and weighed nearly two pounds. Despite its seeming impracticality, the DynaTAC was a hit, and remained the world’s most popular cell phone through the 1980s.
The Cell Phone Slims Down
As the 1980s ended, companies began working to make the cell phone smaller and more practical to use. Companies also began experimenting with different designs. The first flip phone was released in 1996, and the first slider phone was introduced the same year. In 1997, Nokia introduced the first game you could play on your phone—a simple black-and-white game called Snake. Nokia also began making phones with miniature keyboards that users could use to send text messages. But the greatest innovation was just around the corner. Soon, making phone calls would be the least of what mobile phones could do.
The First Smartphone
In 1993, IBM introduced the Simon Personal Communicator, a handheld device with a touchscreen that allowed the user to access many features, such as a calendar, a notepad, and a calculator. But the concept of the smartphone wouldn’t take off until Nokia released its own version, the Nokia 9000 Communicator, three years later. But the true watershed was Apple’s iPhone, released in 2007. The iPhone, the brainchild of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, was essentially a small handheld computer operated entirely through a touchscreen. The modern mobile phone had finally arrived.
As it became possible to do more and more things with cell phones, it became harder to find anybody who didn’t have one. In 2002, 62% of Americans owned a mobile phone; by 2016, ownership had gone up to 95%. Ironically, though, mobile phone users were also talking on their phones less than ever before. A 2008 study found that Americans were sending more text messages than they were making phone calls. At the same time, concerns grew that universal cell phone usage might have some unforeseen consequences. A 2014 report by the National Safety Council warned that 1 out of every 4 road accidents in the U.S. could be attributed to phone-distracted drivers.
The Future of Mobile Phones
Today, even the simplest mobile phone allows its user to do far more than the inventors of the DynaTAC back in 1984 could ever have imagined. We use our mobile devices to play games, interact on social media, listen to music, and take and share photos. They have become an integral part of how we relate to ourselves, each other, and the rest of the world. It’s difficult to imagine that more innovations lie ahead—but they do. Experts have predicted that the mobile phones of the future will have better image and sound quality and will become even more compact and easy to carry. You may even have the option to have your mobile phone embedded in your head. If the long history of the mobile device has taught us anything, it’s that the strangest ideas may turn out to be possible.
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