The world witnessed the first handheld cell phone call 50 years ago today

Martin Cooper Holding DynacTAC
Source: Rico Shen

It's April 3, 2023, and exactly fifty years ago, Motorola engineer Martin Cooper made the world's first cellphone call using a Motorola DynaTAC prototype that weighed more than 4 lbs. The iconic phone call was made to Cooper's counterpart Joel S. Engel at AT&T (Bell Labs) in 1973. Cooper received a lifetime achievement award earlier this year to celebrate its golden jubilee.

It was a brick-sized cellphone that was probably a no-match to the modern do-it-all smartphones. Motorola eventually released the DynaTAC 8000X almost a decade later in 1983. It was the first commercial handheld mobile phone that came with a hefty price tag of $3,995 (around $11,500 in 2023). The device weighed 2.5 lbs and took 10 hours to charge from zero to full and delivered a talk time of just 30 minutes. However, that was the time when most of the world had to rely on landline phones that offered limited mobility.

Interestingly, this wasn't the first time a wireless phone call was made as attempts at cutting the wires date back to the early 1900s. Back in 1926, a wireless telephone service was offered to first-class passengers in German trains running on the Berlin-Hamburg route.

Then came the car phones a couple of decades later when Bell Labs demonstrated the first mobile phone call on June 17, 1946, in St. Louis. Its car telephone was a bulky setup usually fitted in the trunk and required a lot of power to run. Also, the original equipment was as heavy as 80 lbs (36 kg).

While the terms mobile phone and cell phone are used interchangeably, modern cell phones are based on cellular networks, where cells (or cell towers) are placed at different locations to provide uninterrupted coverage to end-user devices. Meanwhile, the older car telephones utilized the MTS (Mobile Telephone Service) developed by Bells Labs which required human operators to assist the call routing process. These were limited to big cities and highway corridors.

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