New York (CNN) On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper stood on a sidewalk on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan with a brick-sized device and made the first public call from a cell phone to one of the people competing to build the device. .
“I’m calling you on a cell phone, but a real cell phone, a personal, portable, portable cell phone,” Cooper, then an engineer at Motorola, told Joel Engel, president of AT&T-owned Bell Labs, over the phone. .
Although cell phones wouldn’t be available to the average consumer for another decade, anyone walking down the street by Cooper that day likely saw history being made.
In the fifty years since that first call, Cooper’s bulky device has evolved and been replaced by a wide range of thinner, faster phones that are now ubiquitous and are reshaping industries, culture, and the way we interact with each other. But while the widespread access and impact of cellphones has garnered some attention, Cooper says the potential for cellphones to one day become indispensable to much of humanity was clear from the start.
“It doesn’t surprise me that everybody has a cell phone,” Cooper, now 94, told CNN. “We used to say that when you are born you will be given a phone number and if you don’t call you will die.”
The rise of the cell phone
A few months before that first call, Motorola was racing to develop a cell phone against AT&T’s famous research arm, Bell Labs, which had developed the transistor and other inventions.
“They were the biggest company in the world, and we were a small company in Chicago,” Cooper recalled. “They don’t think we’re that important.”
As he recalls, his rival wasn’t quite as excited to receive the call as Cooper was to call him.
“You could say I didn’t hesitate to rub his nose in the matter. He was polite to me,” Cooper told CNN. “To this day, Joel doesn’t remember that phone call, and I don’t think I blame him.” (CNN could not reach Engel.)
After Cooper’s first call, manufacturing problems and government regulation slowed progress in bringing the phone to the public, he said. For example, Cooper recalls the Federal Communications Commission, where he now serves as a consultant, struggling to sort out how to divide radio channels to ensure competition.
It would be a decade before a version of that DynaDoc (Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) phone hit the market, costing a whopping $3,900. The phone, similar to the one used by Gordon Gecko in the movie “Wall Street,” weighed 2.5 pounds and stood a foot tall.
Compare that to the iPhone 14, which weighs 6 ounces and measures less than six inches, or Android budget smartphones that cost $200-$300.
“Trying to improve the human experience”
It was only in the 1990s that the modern cell phone was launched as it became smaller and more user-friendly. Today, 97% of Americans own some type of cell phone 2021 study By Pew Research Center.
In the years since that first call, Cooper has written a book about the transformative power of the cell phone, launched companies and appeared on speaking tours and in the media. But he doesn’t necessarily have to embrace every aspect of modern technological advancements.
“A lot of engineers get wrapped up in technology and gadgets, so-called hardware, and they forget that the whole purpose of technology is to make people’s lives better,” Cooper said. “People forget that, and I have to keep reminding them. We’re trying to improve the human experience. That’s technology.”
However, looking back over the past 50 years, Cooper largely agrees with where Cooper has taken us. An iPhone user (and a Samsung user before that), he likes to track swimming activity using his Apple Watch and pair his hearing aids with his phone. Cooper said advances in technology are positive for society.
“I’m an optimist. I know cell phones have their downsides. We have people who are addicted to it. We have people talking on cell phones across the street,” Cooper said. “Overall, the cell phone has changed humanity for the better, and I think it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”