50th Anniv – The Call

50th Anniv – The Call

Next Monday, April 3rd, will mark the 50th anniversary of that historic call by our good friend Marty Cooper at the corner of 6th Avenue and between 53rd and 54th streets in NYC. I have been re-reading Marty’s brilliant memoir “Cutting the Cord” which is full some amazing historical nuggets. He is also a great storyteller who keeps the readers glued to the narrative and indeed transports me back in time as if I was the fly on the wall when he along with his resilient crew at Motorola were outwitting the giant of the day – Bell Labs, the crown jewel of AT&T. The book is truly a gift to us wireless nerds and the details are astounding.

I will share something from the book each day leading up to Monday.

For me, one of the most fascinating chapters is chapter 9 where Marty describes the effort to put together a working prototype. The backdrop is as follows: FCC had a hearing scheduled in spring of 1973 to consider the monopoly proposal from AT&T. Even though Bell Labs had invented the cellular system, their worldview was limited to car phones. Marty had been imagining a portable cellular phone most of his career and was determined to show to the Feds, Congress, Motorola, and AT&T that a bigger vision for the cellular system is possible but for that he had to come up with a “working” prototype in a matter of just 3 months. He persuaded, cajoled, and inspired his peers, bosses, and colleagues to put all their creative energies into doing what seemed utterly impossible at the time. And his team delivered. It is a remarkable story of ingenuity, breakthroughs, crazy inventors, camaraderie, belief, and perseverance.

Determined to make a big splash, he and his team headed to NYC and on April 3rd stunned the media, passersby commuters with a live public demonstration of the first cellular call. But it was no ordinary call. Marty had an extraordinary panache after all, something he possesses to this day.

The first message that Samuel Morse working for the US Government sent in 1844 was “What hath God Wrought?” quoting the bible. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell of AT&T in making the first phone call quipped, “Mr. Watson, Come here, I want to see you.”

On that morning of April 3rd in 1973, walking from his Hilton Hotel, Marty called his rival Dr. Engel at Bell Labs, and his immortal words were, “Hi Joel, it’s Marty Cooper. I’m calling you on a cell phone, But a real cell phone, a personal, portable, handheld cell phone.”

Dr. Engel was a brilliant engineer in his own right. His work led to what became the basis for 1G or AMPS (he along with his collaborator Richard Frenkiel) received National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1994 for their contributions to the creation of the cellular systems) but he will forever be remembered as the guy on the receiving end of that historic phone call.

With that phone call, the trajectory of the industry changed. FCC was so impressed that it did what was once considered unthinkable, it rejected the AT&T proposal and opened the industry to competition thus accelerating the advent of the mobile era.

Rest as they say is history.

Marty Cooper making the first public cellphone call in New York in 1973 (Courtesy Martin Cooper).