The Motorola DynaTAC – The First Mobile Phone

The Motorola DynaTAC – The First Mobile Phone
ImageIn 1983 the mobile phone business started in earnest. Motorola, until then a huge player in the two-way radio business, made a play for the wallets and briefcases of the world. The DynaTAC (a contraction of Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) was the first mobile phone to receive FCC approval, ushering in a new era in being annoyed on trains by people with loud voices saying “Can you hear me now?”

Compared to the phones we carry today, that are about the size of a chocolate bar, the DynaTAC was gargantuan. Looking back at photos of some of the earliest users, it looks a lot like they’re talking into something the size of a house brick. But unlike the carphones that had been around for about 20 years, the DynaTAC was truly portable. While it certainly wasn’t pocket sized – at just under 800g and 25cm high, it was easily carried around. Many of the features we take for granted today, like redial, inbuilt phonebooks and digital displays were all pioneered in the DynaTAC.

Battery life was meagre by today’s expectations – 30 minutes of talk and eight hours between charges. There was a rapid desktop charger accessory also released but it did cause the battery to get pretty warm.

So, what would a DynaTAC set you back? When it was released the DynaTAC cost almost $US4,000 – that’s close to $US9000 in today’s pesos. But within 15 years mobile phones and associated services made up two thirds of Motorola’s $US30 billion in revenue – pretty good for a R&D investment of $US100 million.

Although Dr Martin Cooper, a former general manager at Motorola, is considered the inventor of the first portable handset it’s fair to say that it was a team effort. John F. Mitchell was Motorola’s chief engineer and instrumental in the project as well. And they stood on the work of previous inventors like Leonid Kupriyanovich, Lars Magnus Ericsson and Philip T. Porter of Bell Labs who proposed the hexagonal arrangement of cell towers and a host of other inventors and engineers.

Just for kicks – Dr Martin Cooper was the first person to make a call on a portable cell phone in April 1973. Who did he call? His rival, Joel Engel, the Head of Research at Bell Labs. Who knows if it was a sign of friendly rivalry or heated competition. Either way, we like the man’s gumption even though a decade would pass before the idea was commercialised.

The journey to the first commercially available mobile phone proceeded quickly, In just over 100 years we went from Alexander Graham Bell, Antonio Meucci and others making the first point to point landline calls to exchanges and then to car phones in Sweden by the end of World War One. Two- way radios were common by the end of the next world war and by the 1960s we could make calls from our cars. Once we hit the 1980s, mobile phones were becoming a part of the communications landscape and a necessity. Not bad for something that Ericsson said, in the early 1900s, would be nothing but a toy for the wealthy…

MobileModo is Gizmodo Australia’s look at the rise and rise of the mobile phone, from Bell’s landline to the ubiquitous mobiles of today.