Inventor Martin Cooper holds one of the first mobile phones in this undated handout photo.

When were cell phones first marketed to the public?

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It seems like they’ve been around forever, but when did cell phones first start going on sale?

  1. Inventor Martin Cooper holds one of the first mobile phones in this undated handout photo.

    Backstory

    When considering the history of mobile phones, one has to keep in mind that at its heart, a cell phone is nothing more than a fancy radio. It transmits a signal to the cell tower and receives signals from the cell tower. All these fancy things your iPhone/Android/Blackberry… Windows Mobile…

    Well, anyway, all these fancy things your cell phone can do are nothing more than radio signals being passed back and forth. On that note, let’s look back a bit to get to our answer — which might not be as clear cut as you’d expect.

    Pre-history

    As early as 1930, it was possible to make a call from a telephone on land to a passenger on an ocean liner in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean using a radio link and a human operator — this was, as you’d expect, not inexpensive. These shore-to-ship calls ran about $7 per minute — in 1930 dollars. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s roughly $92.50 per minute in 2011 dollars.

    In 1946, the Mobile Telephone Service was introduced in St. Louis. Only three radio channels were allocated for the service, and calls had to be set up manually by an operator. Additionally, early MTS systems were half duplex, meaning only one party could talk at a time while the other listened — they used a Push To Talk (PTT) button, just like a radio. By the 1960s, the Improved Mobile Telephone Service allowed full duplex calls, just like a landline phone and by and large the need for an operator was eliminated.

    Unfortunately, there were still drawbacks. Customers who wanted to receive calls were quite limited in the area they were able to do so as there was no way to track customers (and their devices) as they moved from one area to another. The devices required were also less than user friendly and accessible — the only practical portable power source was a car battery, thus most of these early mobile telephones were vehicle mounted. They also required a fair amount of technical knowledge to operate correctly.

    The ancestor

    Of course, all of these systems to date involved big, heavy car mounted phones — the likes of which some of us can still remember from the 1980s. However, this all changed on April 3, 1973 when a Motorola researcher by the name of Martin Cooper made the first analog mobile phone call from a prototype handheld phone. This crude ancestor of today’s cell phone was handheld in the strictest sense of the word — it weighed in at over two pounds.

    Modern times

    In 1979, the first “modern” cellular network was launched in Japan by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT). Originally covering the Tokyo metropolitan area with a network of base stations, by 1984 the network covered the entire country, becoming the first nationwide cellular phone service.

    So in this sense, 1979 would be the time when the first devices we could begint to consider “modern” cell phones were first marketed and sold to the public — the call procedure was as simple as picking up and dialing a number, and receiving a call worked just as simply. However, the vast majority of the phones used on the early NTT network were car phones — like the clunky MTS and IMTS units of the 1960s — or contained in briefcases.

    The gamechanger, and the great-grandfather of your modern smartphone was the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x. First released in 1983 as the first modern cellular networks began popping up in the US, the DynaTAC was the evolution of Martin Cooper’s 1973 prototype. (Marty Cooper is shown above.)

    Giving you a whopping 30 minutes of talk time and eight hours of standby, the phone weighed about one pound — and cost $3,995 in 1983 dollars. Despite the limitations — and the hefty price tag — the DynaTAC had a waiting list thousands of names long when first introduced, making it the iPhone of its day — and the first modern handheld cell phone marketed to the general public in mass numbers.

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