Cell phone creator: Future will be wireless

Published Jan. 17, 2000|Updated Sept. 26, 2005

On a bright, crisp Friday morning in November, Martin Cooper was sipping orange juice in the dining room of the Essex House hotel on Central Park South in Manhattan when his well-planned day fell apart. One meeting had to be rescheduled and another had to be relocated even though one of Cooper's colleagues was en route to the old location.

Cell phones were produced and arrangements quietly changed (so as not to annoy nearby diners). Six calls and 10 minutes later, the situation was resolved.

"Thank goodness for cell phones" is something we might say to ourselves when we're not busy cursing the lack of a signal or the shrill ring that cuts into a quiet dinner. What made those sentiments resonate on that morning was that Cooper, a former general manager for the systems division at Motorola, is considered the inventor of the first portable handset and the first person to make a call on a portable cell phone.

"Yes, I was the one people credit with inventing the cell phone," Cooper, 70, said almost sheepishly. "Now, whenever anyone gets a dropped call, they blame me."

Thirty minutes later, a few blocks down Sixth Avenue, Cooper was atop the 50-story Alliance Capital Building, looking for the base station that processed the first handheld cell phone call in 1973. (Noncellular car phones had been in use since the late 1950s.) With rooftop gravel crunching under his feet, he approached what looked like the entrance to an engine room. Dozens of dish antennas lined the perimeter of the building's roof.

Cooper pulled the door open and stepped into a dimly lighted space. Inside, rows of cages secured dozens of transmitters that controlled the thousands of mobile phone calls coursing through the outside antennas. Stepping into a cage marked with a Motorola sign, Cooper brightened.

"That's it," he said with almost childlike enthusiasm, pointing to a 6-foot-high metallic box filled with old circuit boards and transistors, and a Motorola stamp. "I can't say it's the one, but it looks exactly like what we brought up here in 1973."

Back then, Motorola was known for its expertise in radio communications and terminals. In 1973, when the company installed the base station to handle the first public demonstration of a phone call over the cellular network, Motorola was trying to persuade the Federal Communications Commission to allocate frequency space to private companies for use in the emerging technology of cellular communications.

But the company faced formidable competition in AT&T. It was AT&T's research arm, Bell Laboratories, that introduced the idea of cellular communications in 1947.

"AT&T wanted to run the whole wireless world," Cooper said.

Back then, Bell Laboratories wanted the first system limited to car phones. Cooper wanted people to be able to carry their phones with them anywhere. While crediting Bell Laboratories with technical brilliance, Cooper thought that giving them the whole spectrum would delay making cellular phones portable.

"Bell Labs was an extraordinary operation, but we were living in the real world," he said.

After some initial testing in Washington for the FCC, Cooper and Motorola took the phone technology to New York to show the public.

At the time, Richard Frenkiel was the head of systems engineering for Bell Laboratories. "It was a real triumph," he said about Cooper's phone. "We were using 30-pound units in the trunks of cars. So their ability to package the whole thing into a 2-pound unit was a great breakthrough."

On April 3, 1973, standing on a street near the Manhattan Hilton, Cooper decided to attempt a private call before going to a news conference upstairs in the hotel. He picked up the 2-pound Motorola handset called the Dyna-Tac and pushed the "off hook" button. The phone came alive, connecting Cooper with the base station on the roof of the Burlington Consolidated Tower (now the Alliance Capital Building) and into the land-line system. To the bewilderment of some passersby, he dialed the number and held the phone to his ear.

Who did he call for this historic event?

"The first call I made was to Joel Engel, the Bell Labs head of research," Cooper said. "I think they were a little bit annoyed. They thought it was impertinent for a company like Motorola to go after them."

Engel, now a telecommunications consultant, does not remember the first call so clearly. "Marty may very well have given me the honor of being the first recipient of a call from that handheld unit, but I just don't remember it," he said.

Engel does recall the intense effort by Motorola to make a place for itself in the cellular world: "Give Marty Cooper credit for the foresight in recognizing that the business was going toward handhelds and not the car. It was as much a marketing insight as it was a technological breakthrough."

The public demonstration landed Motorola's mobile unit on the July 1973 cover of Popular Science magazine, which referred to it as a "new type of computerized, walkie-talkie-size portable." It also seems to have had some effect on the FCC, which decided to give more space to private companies to foster competition in cellular communications.

"I think Ma Bell was impressed that little Motorola could make such a huge PR flash against that behemoth," Cooper said.

Cooper grew up in Chicago and earned a degree in electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. After four years in the Navy serving on destroyers and a submarine, he worked for a year at a telecommunications company he described as "100 engineers in a big room with no air conditioning."

Hired by Motorola in 1954, Cooper worked on developing portable products, including the first portable handheld police radios, made for the Chicago police department in 1967. He then led Motorola's cellular research.

He left Motorola in 1983, the year that the first cellular systems became commercially available. After starting then selling a company that managed billing for cellular companies, Cooper was an independent consultant until he founded his current venture, ArrayComm, in 1992.

"Initially, I was supposed to spend a day a month as an adviser," he said. "But soon, I was working seven days a week. When you get involved in a start-up, you have to be passionate."

The company originally was focused on creating smart antennas that mobile phone providers could install to increase capacity without building new transmitters. Cooper is now passionate about trying to change the way we use the Internet. Harkening back to when he worked to move people away from thinking of cell phones as anchored to cars, Cooper applies the same thinking to the Internet.

"Cellular was the forerunner to true wireless communications," he said. "And just as people got used to taking phones with them everywhere, the way people use the Internet is ultimately going to be wireless. With our technology, you will be able to open your notebook anywhere and log on to the Internet at a very high speed with relatively low cost."

"At the moment, our story is about what a relatively small company is doing with high-tech stuff in Silicon Valley.

"But when people get used to logging on anywhere, well, that's going to be a revolution."

It's a revolution in which he wants to play an important role. "I have trouble going to sleep at night," he said, "because you always get the feeling that there is another thing you could do."

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