From Tin Cans To Touchscreens: The 40 Most Important Phones In History

From Tin Cans To Touchscreens: The 40 Most Important Phones In History

With due respect to Alexander Graham Bell, he couldn’t possibly have known that his patent for “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically” would give birth to today’s smartphone. Here’s how we got there.[imgclear]

We now live in a connected world, and today’s smartphones define what it means to be a power user. Want to look up turn-by-turn driving directions on your phone? There’s an app for that. There’s an app for just about everything, even if they’re sometimes tough to find (we’re looking at you, Android Marketplace).

But for as much as we rely on our iPhone, Nexus One, or BlackBerry, it wasn’t that long ago when you wouldn’t think of trying to cram a mobile phone in your pocket. Remember when pagers were all the craze? Like computers, communication devices continue to evolve at a rapid pace, becoming faster, more portable, and increasingly flexible in functionality. It’s been a wild ride getting to where we are today, and to pay homage to that journey, we take a look back at 40 of the most important phone models of all time.

Tin Can Telephone

You probably thought we were going to kick things off with Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, but we’ll get to that in a moment. It just wouldn’t be fair to skip over the so-called tin can telly.


Invented: 1664[imgclear]

Alexander Graham Bell’s “Electrical Speech Machine”

You can’t have a retrospective without a little controversy, and ours starts right at the beginning. How so? We’re taking the mainstream route and crediting Alexander Graham Bell with introducing the first telephone. In reality, Bell became the first to receive a patent for what would later become the telephone, but it would be unfair to say he was alone in inventing the device. For that, we have to credit a handful of individuals, each of whom had various degrees of influence in what could be considered one of the most important inventions of all time (agriculture, modern medicine, and beer being some of the others).

Invented: 1876[imgclear]

Butterstamp Receiver

In 1877, Alexander Graham Bell, his future father-in-law Gardiner Greene Hubbary, and Thomas Sanders formed what would become the Bell Telephone Company. One year later, the company came up with the Buttersamp receiver, named such because it resembled a dairy butterstamp. If you were to take it apart, you’d find a permanent bar magnet with a coil of wire wrapped around it, along with an iron diaphragm in front of the coil. This would form the basis of many later receivers.

Invented: 1877[imgclear]

Pay Phone

In hindsight, Mike Brady should have known better than to call up a client on a home pay phone to discuss a potential multi-million dollar deal, but that doesn’t mean his idea to install a pay phone in his living room was flawed. Just the opposite — we think it was brilliant. The alternative? Fend off six school-age children, half of whom were girls, in the battle for one phone line, and do so before the advent of call waiting, cell phones for the masses, or Facebook. As if!

“But I average at least 10 [calls per day] ,” Jan Brady pleads.

Sure you do, Jan, and since we’re all clearly exaggerating, you’re also prettier and more popular than Marcia.

Fun Fact: If not for William grey of Hartford, Connecticut, this famous episode might never exist. It was grey who first patented the concept of a pay phone over 130 years ago.

Invented (pay phone): 1889[imgclear]

Wilhelm Candlestick

Walter Wilhelm, an electrician by trade, improved upon the Butterstamp receiver and every other phone of the time with his double diaphragm design. Wilhelm phones wouldn’t be the first to employ essentially two Butterstamp receivers — one for talking and one for listening — but unlike other phones of the time, it came with two separate chambers and diaphragms.

Other similar looking and functioning phones would follow, but the Wilhelm’s fate was sealed when the Wilhelm Telephone Mfg. company tried on more than one occasion to sell its transmitter to Bell. In 1913, Wilhelm Telephone Mfg. went out of business.

Invented: 1896[imgclear]

Rotary Phone

We could go on and on about how to use a rotary phone, but then we wouldn’t have a reason to embed this unintentionally comical 1 minute how-to video (you’re welcome):

Any questions?

Invented:1904 (rotary dial), 1919 (first rotary phone)[imgclear]

Outdoor Phone Booth

William grey invented the pay phone in 1889, and by 1902, some 81,000 pay phones were scattered across the U.S. But it wasn’t until 1905 that the first outdoor phone booth would come to fruition, protecting callers from the elements (and nosy Nellies).

Outdoor phone booths have become nearly non-existent since their heyday, and no one is more bummed about this than Clark Kent.[imgclear]

First Radio Car Phone

As AT&T tells it, a truck driver in St. Louis, Mo. made history when he reached underneath his truck’s dash and made the first mobile telephone call. That was in 1946, and by 1948, wireless telephone service had swept through nearly 100 cities and highway corridors. Car phones weren’t intended for regular Joes, and instead were used by utilities, truck fleet operators, and reporters.

“Improved technology after 1965 brought a few more channels, customer dialing, and eliminated the cumbersome handset,” AT&T explains. “But capacity remained so limited that Bell System officials rationed the service to 40,000 subscribers guided by agreements with state regulatory agencies. For example, 2,000 subscribers in New York City shared just 12 channels, and typically waited 30 minutes to place a call. It was wireless, but with ‘strings’ attached.”

We see what you did there, AT&T.[imgclear]

Western Electric Model 500

The Model 500 would become the standard Bell System telephone after it was introduced in 1949 and is arguably the most recognised design still today. You’ll notice we skipped several models in between the Candlestick and Model 500, and that’s because the Model 500 represents the end of an evolutionary chain before touch-tone took over.

Invented: 1948[imgclear]

Ericsson Mobile Telephone System A (MTA)

Apple’s iPhone 3GS weighs less than 136 grams. To put this into perspective, the first fully automatic mobile phone system weighed a whopping 40kg. That’s equivalent to almost 300 iPhones!

Invented: 1956[imgclear]

Cordless Phone

Remarkably, the cordless phone was conceived as far back as 1956, even though phones wouldn’t shed their tails for about another three decades. Dr. Raymond P. Phillips Sr., an African American inventor from Texas, came up with the idea, but due to the racial tensions of the time, he wasn’t actually recognised as the inventor by the U.S. and European patent offices until 1987.

Today’s cordless phones operate mostly operate on the 2.4GHz and, more recently, 5.8GHz frequencies.

Invented: 1956[imgclear]

Pink Princess Phone

If you grew up with one or more sisters, then you were probably better off spending your allowance on postage stamps and mailing letters to your friends rather than trying to wait for the phone to be free. Sexist? Maybe, but is it not true?

Credit AT&T for recognising the sales potential in marketing a phone for women, and thus the Pink Princess phone was born. It was compact and light instead of big and bulky, and it even had a light-up dial that could be used as a night light. This made it the perfect bedside companion and helped Ma Bell market more phones to families who already owned one.

Feeling nostalgic? While the original Princess Phone is no longer in production, Crosley sells a reproduction of the 1950s unit, which you can find on Amazon and through other retailers.


Bat Phone

Where would Gotham City be if not for the Bat phone? In a world of hurt, that’s where. Sure, Commissioner Gordon could still summon Batman with the Bat signal, Gotham’s giant searchlight, but that wouldn’t have done him, or Gotham City, any good during the day.

Invented: 1960s[imgclear]

Ram Horn Phone (Flintstones)

Invented: 1960s[imgclear]

Western Electric Model 1500

Western Electric’s Model 1500 sounded the death knell for rotary dials and ushered in the era of touch tone (push button) dialing. Essentially a touch tone replacement for the Model 500, it contained 10 buttons consisting of numerals 1-9, plus asterisk and pound keys.

The beige model (pictured above) was ugly as sin, but these weren’t the only standout features. Handset and line cords were hardwired, and the 1500 series would include several variants with additional feature-sets, such as 2-line sets, industrial phones, and other odds and ends.

Invented: 1963[imgclear]

Get Smart Shoe Phone

Who can ever forget Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone? Not us, because this is only one of coolest inventions ever! Not only could Max make and receive phone calls on his size-whatever shoe, he could inflict some real damage, too. By dialing the number 117, the shoe turned into a gun, and we’ve yet to see a pair of Adidas that are able to do that (not even Gilbert Arenas’).

Invented: 1965[imgclear]

Motorola DynaTAC

It would be another decade before the first commercial cell phone would make it to market, but in 1973, much of the groundwork had already been laid. It was during this time that Motorola developed a prototype, the DynaTAC (DYNamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) portable phone. But Motorola’s work was far from finished.

Motorola tackled the problem by coming up with a concept involving a bunch of overlapping cells in a geographic area. Each cell contained a low powered transmitter that allowed frequencies to be bounced to cells that were farther away.

Invented: 1973[imgclear]

Micky Mouse Phone

If there’s one thing Disney knows how to do, it’s how to make a buck. We have no idea how much the Mickey Mouse phone netted Disney, but we’d guess it was lot (cryogenics isn’t cheap).

Throughout the years, several other models would follow with different designs and characters.

Invented: 1980s[imgclear]

Hot Lips Phone

Another throwback to the Eighties, the Hot Lips phone flew in the face of ergonomics. Both tacky and unwieldy, this phone was a hit nonetheless thanks to talkative teen and pre-teen girls, and we imagine Andy Dick probably owned one too.

still sold todayhere

Invented: 1980s[imgclear]

Airfone (aeroplane Phone)

According to reports, during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many of the emergency phone calls made from victims aboard those fated flights originated from Verizon’s Airfones, those plastic handsets integrated into seatbacks of many airplanes. Airfone installed the first seatback telephone in 1987, but the air-to-ground communication had been around even before then. In 1980, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted Airfone (then owned by GTE) a nationwide air-to-ground telephone service licence under experimental authority.

Invented: 1980s[imgclear]

Mobira Senator

Nokia has released more mobile phones than we care to count, and it all began with the Mobira Senator. This was Nokia’s first ever mobile phone, designed in the boxtype form factor and part of the 1G generation.

Ugly, heavy, and expensive (just like our ex), little did the 1980s crowd know that Nokia — and mobile phones in general — would one day become more popular than a Rubik’s Cube.

Invented: 1982[imgclear]

Motorola DynaTAC 8000X

When you think of old cell phones — the kind you see portrayed in early 1980s flicks and related spoofs, like Night at the Roxbury — the one you’re likely picturing is Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X. The DynaTAC 8000X used to be a sure sign of a big shot, but today those ancient cell phones are laughbly outdated, just like our leisure suits (no worries Larry, you’re still the man).

Only the wealthy could afford one at the time of the release, however, as the handset retailed for just under $US4,000.

Invented: 1983[imgclear]

Motorola MicroTAC

In 1989, Motorola took mobile phones in a completely new direction with the MicroTAC, the world’s first flip phone, at least in part. Unlike modern flip phones, the MicroTAC folded away just the mouth piece, but it was effective for the time. At 350 grams, the MicroTAC was the lightest phone on the market.

Not all was as it appeared on the MicroTAC. For example, a small hole on the front of the mouthpiece gave the impression that there was a microphone underneath it, but the mic was actually located higher up behind another hole on the main part of the phone. And the retractable antennae was for aesthetics only, as the MicroTAC came with an internal antennae.

Invented: 1989[imgclear]

Motorola Bag Phone

Motorola designed its bag phone with a shoulder strap so that high power execs could chat while on the go, but because it was so heavy, most people who owned one usually left it in the car.

Invented: 1992[imgclear]

Motorola StarTAC

Picking up where the MicroTAC left off, Motorola’s StarTAC took the flip phone concept to a new level. It was the first cell phone to sport a clamshell design, a concept that would remain popular for over two decades.

Invented: 1996[imgclear]


Everybody’s familiar with the BlackBerry, the creation of Canadian company Research in Motion (RIM), which successfully meshed PDA functionality with a cell phone in a single unit. And let’s not forget the QWERTY keyboard, which has become a staple of BlackBerry devices.

A year later, the BlackBerry 5790 was born, kicking off the transition from a pager-like device to more of a PDA. Several models would follow, and the BlackBerry became so popular that it was dubbed the “CrackBerry.” Now a dominant player in the smartphone market, RIM trails only Symbian in smartphone OS market share.

Invented: 1998[imgclear]

Nokia 3210

Surprisingly modern for its time, the Nokia 3210 was a smashing success, though not for any single reason. All tallied, Nokia sold about 160 million units of the 3210, earning it a spot on our list.

Another popular feature, the Nokia 3210 also supported user exchangeable front and back covers.

Invented: 1999[imgclear]

Sharp J-SH04

You probably never owned Sharp’s J-SH04, and neither did anyone you know (it was only released in Japan). You’ve never even seen it, and we’re willing to bet this is the first you’ve heard of this mobile phone. So what the frack is it doing on our list?

Well, the J-SH04 was the first mobile phone ever to include a built-in camera, a feature now commonplace on even the lowliest of cell phones. It included an atrocious 110,000 pixel CMOS image sensor for taking awful pictures that could be viewed on the device’s 256-color STN display.

Mobile phone camera quality has improved significantly in the past decade to the point of rivaling some standalone point-n-shoot digital cameras. And yet one of the most popular uses is still for snapping sultry shots of uncovered body parts and then regretting it later, isn’t that right Greg Oden?

Invented: 2000[imgclear]

Sidekick (Danger Hiptop)

If you don’t remember “Hiptop,” maybe you’ll recognise the name “Danger,” which was associated with a massive data outage that affected about 800,000 smartphone users in 2009 (and is Austin Powers’ middle name). Sidekick owners lost all kinds of personal data, including emails, contacts, photos, and more, all the result of a server failure. So how does Danger fit into all this?

Microsoft explains it

The still popular Sidekick began life as the Danger Hiptop in 2002 before being rebranded under T-Mobile. A trademark characteristic of the Sidekick is its slide-out screen (which flipped up in earlier models) revealing a physical QWERTY keyboard underneath. As unlimited text messaging plans started to emerge, the Sidekick became extremely popular among teenagers and young adults.

Invented: 2002[imgclear]

Motorola RAZR V3

Motorola sold more than 50 million RAZR phones in its first year of release, making it the most popular clamshell cell phone of all time. The RAZR boasted a stylish design, super slim profile, and a few relatively uncommon features for its time, including an electroluminescent keypad.

Invented: 2005[imgclear]


Built by UTStarcom, the F-1000 was Vonage’s first Wi-Fi phone, which meant that Vonage subscribers could make calls from any open hotspot.

woohoo jingle

Invented: 2005[imgclear]

First Cordless Phones for Skype

Skype rocks for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the ability to make free and low-cost phone calls all around the world. The downside? Being tethered to your PC. That all changed when phones for Skype were introduced.

Invented: 2006[imgclear]

First Wi-Fi Phones for Skype

Invented: 2006[imgclear]

Apple iPhone

No matter how you feel about Apple, the iPhone ranks as arguably the most important smartphone of all time.

A newcomer to the cell phone business, Apple took the mobile world by storm when it introduced the iPhone in June 2007. Much of the hype centered on the iPhone’s touch interface, and while it wasn’t the first smartphone to sport a touchscreen, it was the first one to get it right. Not only was the interface mostly responsive, navigation was a breeze.

Not without its weaknesses, the iPhone received criticism for its short battery life, proprietary battery, and tight integration with iTunes. Nevertheless, Time Magazine dubbed the iPhone the “Invention of the Year,” and we’d have to agree.

Invented: 2007[imgclear]

HTC Dream (T-Mobile G1)

Apple wasn’t the only one hot to trot in the mobile market, Google wanted to jump in the ring too. But instead of developing a handset of its own, Google continued to work on its open-source Android platform, now the fastest growing mobile OS on the planet.

Thanks to the Android platform, the G1’s greatest attribute is its open nature. It didn’t take long for modders to start churning out third-party ROMs to address the handset’s shortcomings, like the inability to install apps to an SD card instead of the paltry amount of internal memory.

Invented: 2008[imgclear]

GoldVish Le Million

This, folks, is what the most expensive mobile phone on the planet looks like, as recognised by the Guinness World Records. Named after its price tag, the Le Million runs 1 million Euros, or about $US1.35 million.

Invented: 2008[imgclear]

Apple iPhone 3GS

After the iPhone came the iPhone 3G with support for 3G data, and then the iPhone 3GS. In his review of the 3GS variant, former Maximum PC Editor-in-Chief Will Smith said, “Finally, a no-compromise smartphone suitable for mass consumption.”

Invented: 2009[imgclear]

Palm Pre

The Pre’s hype was high in the beginning, and so were the stakes. With Palm struggling financially and the company’s future very much in question, the Pre was supposed to turn the company’s fortunes around. But the much ballyhooed smartphone had the unfortunate timing of debuting not long before the Motorola Droid (see below).

“If we could have launched at Verizon prior to the Droid, I think we would have gotten the attention the Droid got. And since I believe we have a better product, I think we could have even done better,” explained Jon Rubinstein, Palm CEO.

Invented: 2009[imgclear]

Motorola Droid

Like the G1, Motorola’s Droid was hyped as a potential iPhone killer, and it too didn’t quite live up that designation. But it did close the gap considerably, as well as inject some much needed nitro into Android.

Droid was also the first smartphone to ship with version 2.0 of Android, which featured a revamped UI, HTM5 support, Microsoft Exchange support, built-in flash support for Camera, and a bunch of other welcome enhancements.

Invented: 2009[imgclear]

Nexus One

Yet another candidate for the coveted title of “iPhone Killer,” the Nexus One is the first smartphone — or “superphone,” as Google likes to call it — to be seriously considered for the distinction.

Built by HTC, the Nexus One is marketed and sold by Google, which also makes it the first true “Google Phone.” There’s a lot to like in the Nexus One, including the 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, 512MB of internal memory, and 5.0MP camera.

why isn’t the Nexus One killing the iPhone

More recently, Google has begun offering a second version compatible with AT&T’s 3G network, but the non-subsidized phone still runs $US529, so it’s not likely to present a significant threat to Apple’s iPhone sales.

Invented: 2010[imgclear]

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