Mobile phones are one of the great revolutionary devices of the recent past. While the transmission of voices over the airwaves has a long and fruitful history, mobile phones as we know them have only been around since the 1970s. That’s when the first devices that were: 1. able to connect to conventional telephone lines; 2. were wireless and 3. actually were mobile were developed.

But the long and interesting story of the development of the mobile phone actually begins long before the era of disco music and bell bottoms.

Hopes and dreams

At the turn of the century – the twentieth century, that is – an inventor and scientist by the name of Prof. Albert Jahnke claimed to have invented a mobile telephone. Just 30 years before, the first commercial telephone network was opened, with a mere 21 subscribers, so many were dubious of Prof. Jahnke’s claim. In 1908, charges of “using the mails or a scheme to defraud” were brought against Prof. Jahnke and J.B. Allen, Dr. Bardach and M.P. Allen, of the Oakland Transcontinental Aerial Telephone and Power Company, which was advertising the amazing new invention. But several witnesses came forward to testify that they had used the wireless invention successfully. One man testified that he had used the mobile phone in Kansas City, Missouri, back in 1904, to call a place seven miles away. With all the testimony, the charges were eventually dropped, but for some reason, the invention was never produced or sold.

Still, the idea of talking to others while on the move was persistent. In 1918, the German government developed a way to communicate between military trains using telephony, and they worked to provide that technology to the wider public. In 1924, first class passengers on trains between Berlin and Hamburg were able to call any telephone in the country – or even passengers on other trains – by connecting to a switchboard.

In fact, once the telephone was established, it didn’t take much to imagine pocket-sized phones that we would carry around with us. In the seminal magazine Punch, caricaturist Lewis Baumer anticipated the social isolation mobile phones can create when he published his cartoon “Predictions for 1907“. In the image, a man and a woman with aerials stretching from their hats sit next to each other in Hyde Park, turned away from each other and fixated on the large boxes in their laps. The caption (“These two figures are not communicating with one another. The lady is receiving an amatory message and the gentleman some racing results.”) makes it clear that the pair, while close in proximity, are not remotely interested in one another. And in 1927, artist Karl Arnold drew a cartoon for German magazine Simplicissimus that envisioned a street full of pedestrians with telephones hanging out of their pockets.

By the 1940s, hand-held communication devices that used radio waves were, if not commonplace, at least not completely unheard of. They played a prominent role in communication during the Second World War, and in the 1940s, some telephone companies offered telephones for use in cars. Unfortunately, these devices were cumbersome (some weighed in at 80 lbs) and used massive amounts of power, and the networks – each owned by competing telephone companies – could only support a handful of conversations at a time over a limited range.

While all this mobile technology was being developed, authors continued to imagine a world of wide-spread ‘pocket phone’ use. Sci-fi writers like Robert Heinlein, Erich Kästner and (unsurprisingly) Arthur C. Clarke all described mobile phones of one kind or another in their writings. Even low-brow entertainment used the idea: comic book series Dick Tracy and TV show Get Smart both conceived of communication devices embedded in watches and shoes.

Early devices and mobile networks

Humanity began to inch towards the mobile phone during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Russian engineer Leonid Kupriyanovich developed a series of experimental mobile phones. One of the latest models, finished in 1961, weighed just 70g and could easily fit in the palm of a hand. Still, the Soviet government prioritised the “Altai” car phone system instead, setting the development of handheld mobile phones back decades.

While the development of the mobile phone stalled, the development of mobile networks was moving quickly on. The popularity of phones in cars meant demand, limited as it was, still outstripped the capabilities of the telephone networks, so companies around the world developed their own mobile networks. Since standards were not uniform, however, few customers could use different networks.

In the US, two Bell Labs engineers called Douglas H. Ring and W. Rae Young imagined a system of hexagonally shaped “cells” that would allow large numbers of car phones to access the network. The technology wasn’t around to put their ideas into action, however, until Richard H. Frenkiel, Joel S. Engel and Philip T. Porter, also Bell Labs engineers, took up their ideas and began to create a solid plan 20 years later. This plan included important concepts that would allow phone users to move between “cells” without interruption and access the network much faster, concepts essential to mobile phone use today.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, crucial concepts continued to be honed and officially described, and they would be implemented as soon as the technology could be created. During the 1940s and 1950s, manual networks, which required people to operate switchboards, were in use in countries like the US, Norway, Bulgaria, Finland, the UK and West Germany.

Then in 1956, Sweden launched the first automated mobile phone system for vehicles, called MTA, which was phenomenally successful. In the US, the first such system was operated in northwest Kansas. The system launched in 1959 and for unknown reasons was shut down less than a year later, never to be relaunched. In 1967, “Altay”, a similar system, was launched in Russia. Unlike the US’s first network, the Altay system is still used as a trunking system in some parts of the country.

The mobile phone emerges

Car phones were becoming more popular and easier to use, but the idea of a phone you could carry just would not die. In 1973, Motorola became the first company to produce just such a device. It weighed in at 1.1kg (nearly twice Kupriyanovich’s 1961 phone), and it was 23cm long, 13cm deep and 4.45cm wide. It offered a talk time of 30 minutes, after charging up for 10 hours. Motorola executive Martin Cooper made the first public call on a mobile phone on that device, ringing up his competition at Bell Labs, Joel Engel.

Once the principle had been established, companies found it was easier to develop the networks and the devices simultaneously.

The first generation of mobile phone networks (today called 1G) used a system called the Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS). It started out in Japan in 1979, before rolling out to the Nordic countries in 1981, the Americas in 1983, Israel in 1986 and Australia in 1987. This wide adoption meant the mass market could more easily utilise the technology, even though it had some glaring security faults.

On this system, the breakout device was the DynaTAC 8000X. Despite its charge time of 10 hours, talk time of just 35 minutes, bulky size and hefty price ($3,995 in 1984, or $9,366 adjusted for inflation), it was popular: waiting lists for the phone reached the thousands when it was released.

The battle of the standards

The 1990s brought about smaller phones and a second generation of more reliable networks (now called 2G networks). It also brought about a battle for standard supremacy. As countries developed their own networks, there was little in the way of standardisation, so phones that worked in the US couldn’t work on European networks, even if the device itself could get over there.

Eventually, two networks battled for global domination: the European GSM standard and the US CDMA standard. Both systems used digital rather than analog transmission, so connections were faster and more reliable. This caused mobile phone usage to truly explode: innovations like flip phones and prepaid mobiles became common.

Phones in the 1990s shrank in size and increased battery capacity. For the first time, phones could send SMS messages – on Europe’s GSM network at first, before spreading to other networks. The first SMS message, written by a machine, was sent in the UK in 1992, followed quickly by the first person-to-person text message, sent in Finland in 1993.

Arguably the first smartphone, the IBM Simon, was released in 1993. It had a calendar, touchscreen with QWERTY keyboard, notepad, email function, fax machine, pager and more. Simon could also use apps, if you installed a special memory card. It was expensive, however, and the market wasn’t ready for such an advanced device. It was considered a commercial flop.

In perhaps the biggest development, mobile phones in the 1990s could begin to access content and be used to buy things. Finland’s Radiolinja (now called Elisa) introduced the first downloadable ringtone in 1998. Also in 1998, Coco-Cola installed vending machines in the Helsinki area that could use SMS to pay for drinks. In 1999, Philippine companies Globe and Smart simultaneously launched mobile payment services that could provide banking services.

Finally, in 1999, Japan’s NTT DoCoMo introduced full internet services on their mobile phones.

By the end of the decade, the 2G networks’ capabilities were exhausted, but they clearly set the tone for today’s mobile phone technological developments and uses.

3G, 4G and more

The first network to utilise 3G technology was launched by NTT DoCoMo in 2001. This set the stage for a rollout that wouldn’t exactly standardise network technologies, but would make it easier for them to be compatible. The US’s CDMA technology became WCDMA, after developing a way to be compatible with the 3G technology, while maintaining backward compatibility. Now, mobile phone users could use the same device, no matter where they were, so long as they had a signal.

The increasingly advanced speeds meant content streaming could be a reality. Instead of waiting ages for a song or video to download, customers could just watch or listen to it straight away.

By 2007, nearly 300 million people subscribed to the 3G networks, with about two-thirds of these subscribers using the WCDMA standard. Those 300 million made up nearly 10% of all mobile phone users worldwide, generating over $120 billion for 3G network providers.

At this time, popular phones included the Motorola Razr, the Blackberry Pearl and, of course, the first iPhone. The iPhone revolutionised the wider mobile phone market, bringing smartphones to the masses.

Just two year later, in 2009, it became clear that all those people doing all that streaming would quickly overwhelm the 3G network, and work began on 4G. The main difference between 3G and 4G is that phones on the 4G network treat all their functions as digital content. That means a call and watching a YouTube video are both essentially streaming content, as both were turned into digital signals.

Today, phones can be whatever we need them to be. There are phones designed for gaming, phones for workplace productivity, phones for taking photos and videos, and even phones for elderly people. And if you need the phone to do something that it doesn’t do out of the box, there will be an app for that, whatever the model of your phone.

Despite the many changes in the mobile phone sphere, one thing hasn’t changed. We still want to be able to talk to whomever we want, wherever we are. And although we now expect to settle pub debates, look up the name of that actor from that thing, send contact information or share a picture instantly, that basic idea – that we should be able to send and receive information wherever we are – is still present in every interaction we make with our mobile phones. And it will be for the decades to come.


I write about ecommerce, m-commerce and marketing. I live and work in London.

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