Martin Cooper: The Portable Cell Phone Started Here
By Niall McKay in Silicon Valley , Tue Jul 15 10:30:00 GMT 2003

"The essence of technology is solving social problems," says Dr. Martin Cooper, widely regarded as the father of the cell phone. "You take a social problem and use technology to build applications that improve people's lives."


In April 1973, AT & T officials traveled to Washington DC to meet with the Federal Communications Commission. Their mission? To get the FCC to award the company the 900 MHz frequency band so that it could become ... well... the AT & T of the wireless industry. It was not only the US telecom monopoly but also the largest company in the world. Around that time, on a street corner near the Manhattan Hilton in New York City, Martin Cooper, Motorola's research director and inventor of the portable cellular phone made the world's first mobile phone call.

As the legend goes, he called his opposite number at Bell Labs, Joel Engel, who was less than pleased to find out that Motorola had build the first working cell phone because the two companies had been engaged in a fierce race to come up with a prototype.

Stop AT&T


Cooper modestly claims that it was necessity, rather than himself, that was the mother of invention. "Circumstances pushed us to build the first mobile handset," says Martin Cooper, who is now CEO and chairman of ArrayComm, a wireless company that offers 1 Mbps wireless broadband data solutions and a smart antenna technology. "We had to stop AT &T. That was the immediate problem."

If AT & T had succeeded in getting the wireless monopoly then the cellular world would become a very dull place, according to Cooper.

Change Tune


He met with Rudy Krolopp, who ran Motorola design and asked his team to come up with a set of concept phones. "The reward was dinner at Lancers (a US budget restaurant chain) which was situated opposite the Motorola campus," says Cooper. "Each creation was more beautiful than the last but we ended going with the simplest design."

Then he met with Roy Richardson who ran the research department and got them to cobble together a working prototype.

They ended up with a 10 x 2 x 3 1/2 phone that weighed 40 ounces. Ten years and $100 million later the Motorola DynaTac 800X hit the market costing $3995. But it was a rocky road to success. For years Motorola had been telling the FCC that the 450 MHz band was most suitable for wireless communications rather than the 900 MHz band which AT & T was supporting. "But were wrong and we had to change our tune," he says.

The company also had to convince the FCC that wireless communications would be better in the hands of private industry and not AT & T.

1970 Car Phone


Not that personal wireless was a new idea in itself. AT & T offered its customers car telephones for years. In fact, by 1970 there were about 100,000 car telephones in operation in the US. Sweden also had a car phone system. "But neither system was very reliable," says Cooper. "And you had between a one in ten or one in twenty chance of actually placing a call because the service was over subscribed."

Cooper's first patent describes using transistors in communications product to solve the over subscription problem for telephone landlines. "We were building a multiplexer (a device that combines several signals over a single channel) and we needed a delay line (something that interrupts or delays the flow of electric current) and there was simply no room to put in another vacuum tube (valve)."

So he used transistors instead. Motorola had its own fab and had started to manufacture transistors and capacitors in the 1950s. "They used to arrive in a wooden keg and you would just dig down and pick the part you needed," he Cooper.

It was no happy accident or trick of fait that he ended up elbow deep in electronic components in 1953. He had always wanted to build stuff.

"Ever since my earliest memory I wanted to be an inventor," he says. "When I was three I saw some older boys set a piece of paper on fire using a magnifying glass an the sun. So I stole a box of matches and tried to melt down a bottle end so that I could make my own magnifying glass," he remembers.

"I frequently took clocks apart and I sometimes got them back together," he says.

The young Cooper was so enchanted with technology that he was packed off to a gritty technical high school called Crane Technical in Chicago. It was a rough place where some of the kid's ambitions were realized when they managed to make knuckle-dusters in metal work class. He went to Chicago Institute of Technology and then did a tour of duty with the Navy in Korea.

"The US navy put me through school. I served as a line engineer and a submarine officer from 1950 to 1953. The navy thought me problem solving and leadership. The essence of technology is solving social problems," he says. "You take a social problem and use technology to build applications that make people's lives better. If you are not solving problems you are only creating junk."

And indeed at 74 that is still his objective today. Now ArrayComm produces Smart Antennas, which are designed to focus radio wave beams directly to the cell phone user rather than broadcast it over a 360-degree area. This helps improve efficiency and reliability.

The company has also developed a low cost broadband Internet access system that provides 1 Mbps data throughput. The technology can cover up to 200,000 homes with just 10 base stations. Companies such as Vodafone are currently testing the technology.

"With the Internet the same principal applies as it did with the cellular phone," he says. "Given the choice people will always want an untethered broadband connection and ArrayComm can help solve this problem at a fraction of the cost."

Niall McKay is a San Francisco-based writer who has written for the Financial Times, Wired Magazine, and the New York Times. He also contributes to National Public Radio's KQED FM radio in San Francisco. He can be reached at www.niall.org.