From Star Trek to Minority Report, movies have captured our imaginations about what the future of tech – and our world – will look like. This series explores the cool, wacky and far-out tech that the entertainment industry has dreamed up and how some it has gone from the big screen to everyday life.
Marty Cooper: “Joel, it's Marty Cooper.” He says, “Hi Marty.” I said, “Joel, guess what? I'm calling you from a cell phone, but a real cell phone, a personal, portable, handheld cell phone.”
Michael Fisher: This is Living in the Future, a podcast powered by MediaTek that tells the story of technology that’s leapt off the TV or movie screen, transformed from fantastical cinematic science fiction to actual products that change the way we live in the real world. I’m your host Michael Fisher, and this is episode #1: the birth of the mobile phone.
A bit of background for you, for the better part of a decade I’ve reviewed smartphones and their accessories on YouTube. It’s great. It’s a dream job I didn’t dare to imagine I’d be able to have as a kid because I grew up in a time when these mobile communicators were as fantastical, as improbable as the phasers and flying cars that often appeared alongside them.
You know those calculator watches you would occasionally see people wearing as ironic throwbacks? Well, I remember desperately wanting one as a kid. Not for the calculator, but because it reminded me of Penny’s video calling wristwatch from Inspector Gadget. That, of course, was a direct reference to the radio watch, worn by detective Dick Tracy starting in the 1940s, as was the radio watch from Knight Rider. And even heroes that weren’t into wearables usually got some form of pocket radio, like the Turtlecom from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I could go on and on.
But the franchise that’s done the most to advance the allure of the personal communicator is Star Trek. Viewers of the 1960s enjoyed weekly adventures of landing parties beaming down to remote planets and staying in touch with each other using the Starfleet communicator. This beautiful, black and brass box who’s flip-top design became so iconic, that 30 years later when Motorola introduced its first truly compact flip phone, it would be called the StarTAC. And 56 years after Star Trek’s debut, toy makers are still building replica Starfleet communicators. Some even have Bluetooth speakers that connect to your smartphone so you can use them as the storytellers of the '60s intended.
Fortunately, some people saw a future where we wouldn’t need to pretend that payphones and car phones and CB radios of the time were just as good as the communicator … who looked at the technology of their period, took stock of what they were capable of doing with it, and said, “Wait, we might actually be able to build a portable phone.”
Today, I’m talking with the person who led those people at Motorola back in the 1970s. The man who has come to be known as the father of the cell phone.
This podcast is sponsored by MediaTek. Just like how my guest today made the first cell phones possible, well MediaTek makes our modern smartphones possible. Because globally it’s the No. 1 provider of smartphone chipsets; that’s kind of like the heart of a smartphone. MediaTek chipsets power everything, from top-of-the-line flagship phones to the mid-range and entry-level devices that are opening incredible smartphone experiences to everyone. And MediaTek’s Dimensity chipsets bring professional-grade cameras, advanced gaming and AI, and seamless 5G connectivity to products that might already be in your pocket. Thanks to MediaTek for sponsoring the show.
Michael: Dr. Marty Cooper, co-founder and chairman of Dyna LLC, 29-year veteran of Motorola and author of the book, “Cutting the Cord: The Cell Phone Has Transformed Humanity.” Dr. Cooper would know, because that cell phone was produced by the Motorola team that he led. Dr. Cooper, thanks for joining me. It's lovely to talk to you again.
Marty: It's my great pleasure, Michael. Call me Marty.
Michael: This show is all about how fanciful future tech became a reality, right? The technology of science fiction transmuting into something we can actually buy and use. You have been frequently, I'll say, infamously misquoted as having taken Star Trek as an inspiration when developing the cell phone. Now, let me say as a lethally uncool lifetime Star Treker, I completely understand why people would believe that. I have the job and the life I do because I've never been able to get over my own personal obsession with Star Trek, particularly communicators. But, while that's a bit of apocrypha I would like to be true, it isn't. Is it? Would you care to set the record straight and tell us what fictitious property most inspired you when you were thinking about the first cell phone?
Marty: Well, think about it. Star Trek didn't happen until much after we had the idea of the cell phone. There are more practical reasons why we made the first cell phone, but if there was an inspiration from a fictional character, it was Dick Tracy.
Michael: With the radio watch.
Marty: You bet. Dick Tracy had a radio watch, and we were the two-way radio business at Motorola. Of course, our objective then was someday we would be able to have a technology that we could make a wrist radio, and finally, we did make one. Of course, it was huge at that time. But as soon as we did that, Chester Gould who was the writer for Dick Tracy had a wrist video device.
Michael: So, he always stayed one step ahead of you.
Marty: Yeah, he sure did.
Michael: We'll come back to watches in a second, but first, I want to kind of take the opportunity to talk to somebody who really understands this from a foundational aspect to make the point that I think a lot of folks still don't understand how a cell phone works even today. You'll see a new technology introduced, like Apple or T-Mobile introducing satellite connectivity to existing mobile phones. You'll hear some people say, "Wait, I thought they were using satellites already?" But, that's not true. In essence, even today, these amazingly complex smartphones at their core, they're just two-way radios. Isn't that right?
Marty: That's exactly right. They are a radio and they use a radio channel. If people think about how a radio works, like an old fashioned radio where you turn the dial, you move through a whole bunch of radio channels and radio stations, and there are only a limited number of stations that can fit into this dial.
Michael: It's like lanes on a highway, right?
Marty: You got it. Exactly right. The old fashioned mobile telephones used very narrow radio channels, but they had a very limited number of them because they'd have a transmitter in the middle of a city. If you wanted to accommodate a thousand people, you needed a thousand radio channels and there just weren't that many. Just imagine that if you were in a city like Los Angeles or Chicago, and the maximum number of people that could talk at the same time in that city were 40.
Michael: Like 40? 40 people out of what? 6 million, 8 million in New York right now?
Marty: Of course, the phone companies were only interested in making money, so they would’ve signed up hundreds of people. The bottom line was that the during the day, if you wanted to make a phone call, the chances of your getting a channel were like 1 in 20. So, they were not very useful.
Michael: So we're talking late '60s, early '70s now, during the heyday of car phones.
Marty: Not too many people know about what two-way radios do. Two-way radios are the glue that make police departments, fire departments, and many business. You can't run a concrete-mixing company without a two-way radio.
Marty: The two-way radios, and you're quite right, these were all big boxes where there was a heavy device in the trunk of the car and a big cable would go all the way to the front, and then you would have to wire it and control it, then it had a microphone. They were very awkward.
Michael: Like a residential style, brake light receiver that you would hold up, even a rotary dial in some of those.
Marty: These were all professionals. You could operate on what they call “press-to-talk.” When you wanted to talk, you hit a microphone and you'd push the button so the other guy could talk and that was perfectly alright. In order to make a portable telephone, there are so many breakthroughs we had to do. As an example, you had to talk and listen at the same time, and that had been done before, but the device that made that happen was bigger than your fist. Part of that big box that went in the trunk.
Michael: Just the device. Just to be clear, just the device that made that full-duplex functionality possible, only that component was the size of a fist.
Marty: That's right. That alone was bigger than the whole cell phone that we had. We had to operate at a new frequency, 900 MHz. That had never been done before. There were no portable antennas at that frequency that could operate. We had to operate on hundreds of radio channels. Up until that time, there was no technology that would let that happen. We had to use large-scale integrated circuits. They had just been created. We had to go to our semiconductor division and ask them to use the technology that and they weren't sure it would work themselves. We had a bunch of breakthroughs in order to make a handheld cellular telephone.
Michael: Take us to 1973. There's this giant battle going on between this entrenched AT&T with its old school car phone approach to communications. AT&T wants to preserve its monopoly above all, right? You folks at Motorola want to do something different. What's at stake is the radio spectrum that's needed to make all this happen. We talked about highway lanes a second ago, but another analogy is that it's invisible beachfront property in the air that the government is going to allocate to someone, because it's finite. Whether it goes to AT&T or Motorola and company, it will determine whether the future of mobile is giant car radios or something different. So it fell to you to realize that something different. As I understand, that resulted in you instituting a crash course within Motorola to build something that had never been seen before in a timeframe that everyone told you was kind of insane. Can you talk about what kind of a challenge that was and why you thought you could do it?
Marty: Well, first, I ought to say that Motorola's biggest concern was not the idea of building a portable telephone. They were concerned about their very existence. The Bell System vision was going be a car telephone. I just didn't believe that. I thought the future, it was going to be handheld telephones. The whole concept of a handheld telephone is that when you made a phone call, you were going to call a person. When you did a phone call in the past with a wired phone, you were calling a location. That's a huge difference. So the vision of having a cell phone had been on my mind for a long time. But the problem here was that Bell System was proposing not only to provide cellular service with car phones, they wanted to take over our business as well.
Motorola and my management were only concerned about one thing, preserving their business. I tended to be a dreamer at the time, and I thought, "You know, as long as we're fighting this battle, why don't we keep the spectrum open and let us participate in this market?" So, instead of Bell System taking over our business, and we were going to make telephones, only these were going be portable telephones. We were going to take over Bell System's business.
Michael: Famously there's an example in your book where you walked into a coworker's office and you said, "This is what we want to build, we want to build a portable cellular telephone." The response was, "What the hell is a portable cellular telephone?" You had to illustrate it physically by picking up the phone off his desk and making a show of snipping off the wire and saying, "This," and pointing at the receiver and saying, "This is what we want. Self-contained, completely." Everyone thought it was impossible.
Marty: You got it. Well, you should know that the guy that I first approached was an industrial designer. He didn't care about the electronics. You’re right that I had to show him roughly what this thing looked like. When I went to the engineers with the same request, now they were astounded. None of them believed that this could be done. I used what was famously known at Motorola as the Marty Cooper hug, and told them, "I believe in you. I think you can do it. I can tell you that first of all, we're going to support you, and that I can find the technology for you somewhere in this company. All you got to do is about 10 different breakthroughs, only we got one other little problem. We only have three months to do it, because the management had scheduled a demonstration in Washington to persuade the Federal Communications Commission, and that Bell System should not take over the two-way radio business. What I had to do was persuade the management that nobody knows what two-way radios are. Let's build the portable phone and you know that the FCC, the congressman that we had to talk to, they'll know what that is.
I wanted to battle the Bell System, which by the way was the biggest company in the world. We need something dazzling and that's the pitch that I made to the management.
Michael: It's already insane to presume you can develop the handheld device in this compressed timeframe. But you had to build the entire platform on the network side. You had to build the switching equipment. You had to allocate the radio spectrum. As you said before, you had to develop a new antenna design. What was the result of all this? This was ultimately what resulted as the DynaTAC AKA the shoe phone, 36 minutes of talk time and 12 hours of standby on a 14 volt Ni-Cd battery, 10×3 inches and 2.5 pounds. You could see why it was called the brick, with a six inch antenna sticking out the top. We’re all familiar with it. It came together. You got it delivered in time and now it's April 3rd of 1973. This is one of my favorite stories ever. You're in New York City, you're set up for this big press demonstration and you're walking down 6th Avenue with a reporter, and in your hand is this very first self-contained cellular telephone. You have to make the decision, who do I call? Can you tell us what that process was like and who you ultimately called?
Marty: Well, most people don't believe me when I mention, this was purely serendipitous. When I called the guy in Bell System who was responsible for building their version of what cellular was. He was the guy that was building the cellular car telephone. You can imagine how arrogant it is for the biggest company in the world, people having those resources, to have this upstart in Chicago coming up with a counter. I was thinking, who should I call? It suddenly came to me, I'm going to call Joel. So I reached in my pocket and pulled out my little address book. Does that give you a hint of what ancient times these were?
Michael: A physical address book. Yes.
Marty: Of course. I called Joel, and this is all so serendipitous and remarkable, he answered the phone, not his secretary.
Michael: Not his secretary, but him. Yeah.
Marty: “Joel, it's Marty Cooper.” He says, “Hi Marty.” I said, “Joel, guess what? I'm calling you from a cell phone, but a real cell phone, a personal, portable, handheld cell phone.” You can see I was not averse to rubbing Joel's nose with it.
Michael: Well, who can blame you? He had referred to Motorola as an annoyance.
Marty: Yeah, well, Joel was polite to me and unfortunately Joel to this day does not remember that phone call. Luckily, I don't believe him forgetting.
Michael: I'm not sure that I would either. So everyone has kind of heard that story before, probably never gets tired of hearing about it, but I always forget the little detail that happened right after that, which you describe in your book. You were wrapping up that call, I think, or maybe starting another, and the reporter you were with grabs you by the back of the jacket, because you were about to walk into traffic by accident. Isn't that right?
Marty: I almost got nailed by a New York City taxi cab, so that would've been another first.
Marty: If you think about it today, you watch people crossing the street talking on their cell phones, and that's what I did. I stepped right into the street and he grabbed me back and I really would've been history.
Michael: Wow. Now that's exactly why I bring it up. You see it every day, hundreds of times a day if you're looking for it. It almost happens to me very frequently. I was reading your book on my large screen folding smartphone, and this time I didn't almost get hit by a bus, but for sure it happens so frequently and it's amazing to me that on the very first cellphone call of all time, one of these behaviors that still persists today manifested in you. I think that's fascinating.
Marty: Well, I wanted that conversation with this reporter to be realistic, and it turns out it was.
Michael: It turns out you're right. Speaking of trends that began to set in then and are widely apparent today. An AP story written that day in April 1973 says, "There may be no way to escape the strident summons of a telephone in a few years if a portable telephone catches on." Of course, we know how that worked out. How do you feel about the modern kind of always-connected culture that the cell phone has created?
Marty: Well, Michael, there are pros and cons with any technology. But the first thing I think about with the cell phone is how it has made the world a better place to live. When you think about it, my grandchildren had cell phones when they were five or six years old, because when they got done with school, they had to wait on the street for their mother to pick them up. They could always push a button and reach their mother. There are so many examples of how cell phones make people's lives better. I won't even burden you with repeating them. The wonderful thing about that concept of cell phones making people's lives better, we just have scratched the surface. There are so many things that are going to happen because people can be connected full-time.
Michael: Since you and I last spoke a decade ago, smartwatches have become a thing in a big way, but not the way many of us first envisioned them. Some of my favorite commercials in mobile were from Samsung when it revealed its first smartwatch and it leaned heavily into the nostalgia of wrist radios. You had Dick Tracy, you had Star Trek, you had it all. Well, occasionally, people do take calls on their wrists, much more of the focus is on fitness and health tracking now. That wasn't necessarily a giant push when the category first debuted. So my question is, are big reversals or course changes like that, are they just a part of building consumer products? Do you just have to adapt to customer needs, as you said, many times in your book?
Marty: Well, it has to do with vision, Michael. Somehow, you have to be able to translate between what technology can do and what is useful for people, that was one of the brilliant things that Steve Jobs did. Steve Jobs knew he had much more technology available, and this was 15 years later, and he envisioned a smartphone. Once you talk about a smartphone, you're now dealing with building computer technology into small packages, into the portable telephone. Once you do that, the number of things you can do is infinite. When I go swimming, my phone knows what stroke I'm doing, it knows the size of my swimming pool because it has calculated how far that I have moved. It counts my pulse rate, the number of laps that I've done. It’s just amazing to me. It really knows the way I swim, whether I'm swimming backstroke or freestyle. So it's amazing, isn't it?
Michael: It's incredible. I wonder though as for you personally, I understand the difference between the cell phone that you pioneered and the smartphone pocket computers of today, your point is well taken. Do you ever still even all these years later have an experience like that, and look at this “Hold up your iPhone,” and say just feel a little pang of satisfaction that this is a reality that you helped, that you ushered in?
Marty: Well, of course. The real issue there was what I expressed to you earlier, is that the idea of the old phones, the wired phones, was the person calling a place, didn't know who was going answer it. With a cell phone, you're calling another person. That feature alone is extraordinary. What it does for the concept of collaboration, for example. One of the ways that all progress is made today, you know that a group of very smart people can do a lot more than one individual. In fact, some of the things we do, can't be done without groups of people. How else can you do a collaboration? Well, I'll give you an example. Einstein, when he envisioned the theory of relativity, he would think of an idea, he would write it down, he would send it to one of his colleagues who would get it in the mail a couple of weeks later, he'd think about it for a week or two and send it back. That kind of collaboration was literally months and years, and that now happens almost instantaneously. That alone, just the connectivity, instantaneous connectivity, has made a huge change in the world, has improved everybody in the world's lives.
Michael: In your book, you had a lot to say about the monopoly of the day, AT&T, correct me if I'm wrong, it was my perception that your perspective on this, the kind of monopolistic way of doing business was not great for innovation. I wonder if you see any parallels to a more recent debate about messaging, wherein Apple is exerting all this pressure to keep people within the iPhone ecosystem with its iMessage platform and blue bubbles versus green and all that kind of stuff. Do you see a connection there at all?
Marty: I absolutely do. All my life, all my career, I've had this thing about monopolies and how bad they are and how restrictive they are. I believe in capitalism. I believe that people should make the decisions of what the products are, but big companies tend to think that they can outthink people, that they can monopolize features. Use patents as an example, I think our patent system is broken, because people are using it inappropriately. The patent system was designed to help small inventors, and now you got people like Apple trying to constrain the technology so only they can use it. So I'm very much opposed to that. I think that if somebody comes up with a new idea, they don’t exercise it, they want to market it, but they should not be able to legally inhibit other people from competing with them. Competition is the way that prices go down, that products get improved. The best example I could give you is that Bell System came up with the idea for cellular in 1947. Could you imagine that? They didn't decide to do it because they weren't quite ready until 1969.
Michael: What a head start they could have had.
Marty: That doesn't happen in a competitive environment.
Michael Looking toward the future, there are still a lot more frontiers to be conquered in terms of personal communication. If science fiction is to be believed, communication devices that can fit into a badge. I'm going back to Star Trek as I always do. Well, they're already here, you can put your Apple watch on your chest, that's done. But also like subcutaneous communicators that can be embedded beneath the skin or contact lenses with displays that can give you an augmented reality experience. Just personally speaking, are those concepts intriguing to you or do you draw the line as I do at the skin? Do you just say no, if it has to be built into my body, I don't want it?
Marty: I think you start out with is what the needs of people are, and that's what technology is all about. Technology is the application of science to make products and services that make people's lives better. So my approach to this is, “What are the needs of people and how can you take the technology and fix them?” My view about the technologies is that there are three really important areas that being connected are going to revolutionize in the future. One is in healthcare, I think you mentioned talking about putting stuff under your skin. That's why I urged you to read the last chapter of my book. Because at some point… I don't want to tell you the whole chapter because then your readers will never buy my book.
Michael: We'll make sure that they do. They're a classy bunch.
Marty: Yeah. You could go too far with technology, but we got a long way to go before we get to that point. We could revolutionize healthcare because it's now possible to literally connect your body to a computer so that the computer can analyze your health. Not once a year when you go in to see the doctor for a healthcare visit, but literally once a minute. There are a lot of diseases where you can't tell unless you analyze them properly.
Michael: Sure. The more data the better, right?
Marty: Even today, there are places where a doctor in Mexico City, as an example, can do an eye examination of somebody in a village that has never had and never will have a doctor and do that over a cellphone channel. So healthcare is starting to be revolutionized. It's going to change the whole concept of what a doctor does, and education. The fact that our children are going to be connected. I don't think it's possible to get a modern education without having full-time connectivity.
Michael: I agree.
Marty: I know it sounds ridiculous to say that every student should have an equivalent of a cell phone, but I believe that very deeply. I think the children who do have that, who have access to all the knowledge in the world, they don't need teachers to lecture them. They need teachers to teach them how to use their device, how to discriminate between fake news and real news.
Marty: So education is getting revolutionized. The whole concept of collaboration, which we talked about earlier. People are just learning now how to do what you and I are doing. They're just learning how to work remotely so you don't have to have a conference room where people get together. Think of how much the interaction of people gets multiplied when they can just set up a meeting independent of space, independent of time and collaborate. Those three things I think are going to be enormously effective. By the way, let me add the whole concept of people being poor is going to disappear. The fact is that the world does produce enough food, so there should be nobody who is hungry.
Michael: In terms of how cell phones play into that and how connectivity plays into that, do you see that as the ultimate tool for destroying poverty?
Marty: Well, certainly. Anything that makes you more productive means that there is more product, more of everything and when you say that, you also say that the cost of everything is going to go down. So there's no question in my mind, it's not the only thing, but I think it's going to have an enormous influence on eliminating poverty.
Michael: I might have had a more difficult time making that connection had I not just a few months ago, spent some time with John Deere and their connected tractors and combines. I had the occasion to sit there and watch as this massive machine ran an automated track all by itself through a farm field, and demonstrated how not that it doesn't need a farmer, there still needs to be a farmer there, but their productivity is just insane. The comfort with which they can do the job is astronomical. That wouldn't be possible without the connectivity of technology. So, I take your point.
One more thing here, you mentioned, where you give the phone at the press conference, the first DynaTek, you give it to the press and they're calling their family. You give it to Vice President Bush in the Reagan White House and he's calling, Barbara. They all say the same thing, and it brought me immediately back to the very first cell phone call that I ever made. It was the summer of 2001, minutes after buying my first mobile phone from a Radio Shack. I called my best friend and I asked him what up until that point would've been an utterly absurd question. In the age of caller ID, the same thing, Vice President Bush asked, the same thing the press asked, "Guess where I am."
The truth, I was standing on an unremarkable stretch of sidewalk on the main road in my tiny little country town, but that's what made it so significant. I could dial a number and open up a line to anyone from anywhere. You mentioned it many times in your book about this intoxicating power of mobility, of connecting with people no matter where you were, I will never forget what it was like to experience that for the first time.
Marty: Interesting. As I said before, we have only just started that revolution and incidentally there are some people in the existing carriers, the AT&T and Verizon, that haven't captured that idea yet. That they keep talking about 5G, and to them 5G is running factories and they haven't completed the job. They talk about the Internet of Things. Have you heard about that?
Michael: Yeah, absolutely.
Marty: They haven't finished the Internet of People and there are all kinds of people in this country that don't have coverage. Believe that or not, in a modern country Verizon and AT&T are raising their rates and yet there are many people in this country that can't afford cellular service. There are people that have to literally, because their cellphone is so important, will give up a meal a day rather than give up their cellphone. So having the carriers, I know how important they are, but having them emphasize things like the IoT, millimeter waves, things that are not going to affect you and me for many, many years and financing all that by giving us big telephone bills.
Michael: One of the many problems left to solve. Do you see, just last question here. Do you see some utility in the approach of carriers like T-Mobile and manufacturers like Apple in now bundling in this satellite connectivity into some phones for granted, just for emergencies. I found that announcement pretty exciting because it, I thought that was a new frontier to sort of tap into.
Marty: I think it's a nice feature, but I do not see it as being a new frontier because satellite communication is very limited. The best they could do is a little bit of texting, and it won't work if you're inside a building, it won't work if you're moving real fast. So a very limited feature, but you know who's going to make the decision about whether that's good or not, the users will do that.
Michael: The customers, yes of course.
Marty: Exactly. That is my biggest motivation is that in capitalism, the way I envision it, it is the users that make the determinations not the companies and not the executives, not the politicians, but the customer.
Michael: I can't think of a logical way to disagree with that, and I can't think of a better point to go out on. Dr. Marty Cooper, thank you very much. It was wonderful to talk to you forever ago and it was great to talk to you now and thank you again for the book. I'll say it again in the pod, but the book is called “Cutting the Cord: The Cell Phone Has Transformed Humanity.” Indeed, it has. Thank you for your time today sir.
Marty: Good luck to you and your new venture, and thank you for the compliment of having me as the very first podcast.
Michael: I wouldn't have wanted anyone else.