A Look Back on 50 Years With the Cellphone

December 11, 2023 by Aaron Carman

As we look back on 2023, we give tribute to the 50th anniversary of the cellphone. After half a century, this device is almost unrecognizable from its two-pound form in the 70s and 80s.

Looking at just how ubiquitous smartphones have become in daily life, it's hard to believe that April 2023 marked the 50th birthday of the cellphone. What started first as a sci-fi-based dream of worldwide wireless communication has evolved over the years into a fundamental mechanism for accessing all sorts of information, making it invaluable for life as we know it.


The Motorola Dynatac Cellular Telephone

The Motorola Dynatac Cellular Telephone marked the first mobile phone to be generally available and made use of first-generation cellular networks to connect users. Image (modified) used courtesy of the Smithsonian

The cellphone has certainly come a long way from its invention, with advances made in both networking, wireless hardware, and embedded software driving innovation that has turned the mobile phone from a single-use communications device into a multi-functional tool. Today’s users have engineers to thank for the modern mobile device.

To celebrate the cellphone from an engineering perspective, this article summarizes the history of mobile communications and gives readers context on the hardware and software design that ultimately led to the cellphone being a crucial item in every pocket.


Shrinking Wireless Mobile Comms

Since Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of the radio, engineers have sought after truly mobile and wireless communications to connect people across vast distances. Purely radio-based solutions have long been used to transmit voice data across the world. But at frequencies with impractically-sized antennas, a new network was needed to support simultaneous communication over a few miles.


Cellular networks use a distributed network of cells

Cellular networks use a distributed network of cells to serve multiple users in an area without interfering with each other. Image used courtesy of IEEE Communications Surveys & Tutorials

In order to broaden communication at higher frequencies, a distributed network was adopted to serve individual areas as needed. From a geographical standpoint, this architecture resembled a biological cellular structure, giving the mobile phone its full “cellular phone” title. Using this architecture, it was possible to establish a link to a cellular tower for relatively short-range communications, route the data as needed, and provide wireless communications to the users.


Evolving From Communications

Without a working wireless link to cell towers, however, a cellular network would be nearly useless.

In 1973, Motorola engineer Martin Cooper placed the first cellphone call from a device aptly nicknamed "The Brick" to his competitor, Joel Engel, at Bell Labs. Recounting this momentous event, Cooper recalled: 

“And I said, ‘Hi, Joel, it’s Marty Cooper.’ And he said, ‘Oh, Hi, Marty.’ And I said, ‘Joel, I’m calling you from a cell phone. But a real cell phone, a handheld, personal, portable cell phone,’” said Cooper. “As you could tell, I was not averse to rubbing it in.”


Martin Cooper

Engineer and inventor Martin Cooper made the first cell phone call on April 3, 1973, on 6th Avenue in New York City. Image used courtesy of Martin Cooper/WHYY

More than ten years later, in 1984, Motorola released the DynaTac 8000X, considered to be the first generally-available cell phone. This hefty handheld device allowed users to leverage cellular networks to communicate on a wide scale. Weighing in at nearly two pounds and costing what would now be worth $11,500, this first cellphone was not nearly as accessible or user-friendly as models today.

Quite a few changes are evident comparing the 8000X to modern cell phones. Namely, the size reduction is considerable, with advances in touch-display, battery, communications, and power technology allowing for smaller and more efficient designs.


A comparison between the first phone and modern phones

A comparison between the first phone and modern phones highlights how far the technology has been developed, with mobile phone hardware sporting faster speeds, improved efficiency, and smaller packages. Image used courtesy of Umut Çolak/Wikimedia Commons [Public domain]

In addition to hardware developments, improved software has allowed for more functionality to be packed into mobile phones. In 2006, the first “smartphone”, the LG Prada, was announced and marked a shift toward phones doing more with the hardware they had. Now, it's difficult to find a phone that isn’t a smartphone, highlighting how cellular technology as a whole has become not only more available but more important to how life is lived in the modern age.


Looking Ahead 50 Years

As engineers, there are certainly lessons to be learned from past inventions and developments. It is our responsibility to dream up a future that seems impossible and make it happen. And though cellular technology has evolved more than imaginable, recent developments in 5G, IoT, wireless communications, and sensing technology are poised to provide even more advancement, so long as there are engineers who are creative enough to spark the next 50 years of innovation.

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    WO1N December 15, 2023

    Check out “Cutting the Cord” by Martin Cooper also. Good friends with the Ham identified on Pg. 125. The book substantiated all the great stories he’s told us over the years while enjoying a cold one with him.

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  • D
    Diggerman December 19, 2023

    Ok lets just end this here Marconi did not ‘invent radio’  Tesla and several others came up with radio transmission methods so it would be nice if the facts were correct from the start.

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