First Cellular Phone Call Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Martin Cooper’s cellular phone experiments set the stage for Motorola to become one of the leaders of the mobile telephone industry. Approval of the Motorola DynaTAC and its accompanying cellular network paved the way for the transformation of the mobile telephone from an expensive curiosity to a global cultural phenomenon.

Summary of Event

When the Federal Communications Commission Federal Communications Commission;cellular phones (FCC) granted the Motorola Corporation permission to develop a cellular telephone network in 1983, the result was a revolution in communications that both rivaled the development of the land-based telephone, radio, motion pictures, and television, and roughly paralleled that of the Internet. Federal approval of cellular telephone service marked the culmination of generations of experimentation in wireless communication, electronics, audio technology, and telephone design. Telephone technology;cellular phones Cellular telephones Telecommunications;telephony Mobile telephone industry Motorola DynaTAC[Dynatac] [kw]First Cellular Phone Call (Apr. 3, 1973) [kw]Cellular Phone Call, First (Apr. 3, 1973) [kw]Phone Call, First Cellular (Apr. 3, 1973) Telephone technology;cellular phones Cellular telephones Telecommunications;telephony Mobile telephone industry Motorola DynaTAC[Dynatac] [g]North America;Apr. 3, 1973: First Cellular Phone Call[01130] [g]United States;Apr. 3, 1973: First Cellular Phone Call[01130] [c]Communications and media;Apr. 3, 1973: First Cellular Phone Call[01130] [c]Inventions;Apr. 3, 1973: First Cellular Phone Call[01130] [c]Science and technology;Apr. 3, 1973: First Cellular Phone Call[01130] Cooper, Martin Engel, Joel Frenkiel, Richard

In 1910, Swedish telephone pioneer Lars Ericsson developed a primitive mobile telephone that utilized long poles to tap into existing lines along roadsides. Although it proved impractical, Ericsson’s invention demonstrated the potential of mobile communication for increasing safety and convenience. The development of radio in the early twentieth century led to experiments in station-to-station (as opposed to broadcast) wireless communication prior to World War II, yet most such experiments focused on improving communications technology for public rather than private use. Motorola, the company that would later produce the first cellular phone, began marketing mobile two-way radios in the 1930’s for police and emergency vehicles and, later, for taxis and mass transit vehicles. Military use of mobile telephones began prior to World War II but proliferated during and after the war.

A breakthrough in private wireless communication came in 1947 when Bell Laboratories Bell Telephone Laboratories engineers D. H. Ring Ring, D. H. and W. Rae Young Young, W. Rae proposed a system of communications “cells” that would facilitate mobile telephone use across a wide area. Lack of demand and a continued focus on military and public uses of wireless communication hindered the development of private mobile communications until the late 1960’s, when technological advances made the creation of mobile phone service cells feasible. Early cellular telephone service was extremely limited in functionality and coverage. Users of cellular systems had to remain within range of a single cell during each call. Mobile telephones, which typically weighed between forty and eighty pounds in the 1950’s, had with the aid of transistor technology been reduced to a more manageable fifteen to twenty pounds. The invention of “call handoff” systems that allowed users to travel through multiple cells came into use in the early 1970’s, making cellular phone use more viable. Despite these improvements, providers of cellular telephone service still possessed neither the technology to offer affordable, practical telephone service nor the designated range of communications frequencies necessary for widespread mobile phone service.

In the early 1970’s, the Motorola Corporation, under the direction of Dr. Martin Cooper, worked to develop a practical prototype of a handheld mobile telephone. On April 3, 1973, in New York City, Cooper reportedly made what is widely regarded as the first cellular telephone call using one of these early prototypes. The call, which Cooper made while walking in downtown Manhattan, was to Joel Engel, research and development director at Motorola’s chief competitor, Bell Laboratories. Cooper subsequently made several other calls from his mobile telephone, reportedly drawing the curious scrutiny of bystanders. The success of these experiments propelled Motorola, one of the first companies to manufacture two-way radios and mobile telephones, to the forefront of mobile telephone technology. However, service remained crude and limited; the first Motorola network in New York was capable of accommodating only thirty subscribers, and available transmission frequencies remained limited.

Motorola was awarded a patent for its cellular system in September, 1975, but could not proceed with its development without FCC approval. Meanwhile, Cooper continued to refine the prototypical handheld mobile telephone that he had first tested in 1973. In 1974, the FCC announced plans to open an additional 115 megahertz of airspace for the development of cellular telephone networks, yet the commission exerted tight control over the allocation of frequency space to individual companies, which led to intense competition in the 1970’s between communications companies seeking to enter the cellular telephone market.

The Bell System, which held a virtual monopoly over landline telephone service in the United States, enjoyed a formidable advantage over smaller companies because of its large research budget and influence within the U.S. government. In 1975, in response to a proposal by Engel and Richard Frenkiel of Bell Laboratories, the FCC granted the Bell System permission to operate a trial cellular system, which was made available to the public in Newark, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois, in late 1978. The successful trial demonstrated the practicality of large cellular networks and set a standard for the operation of cellular telephone service through the Advanced Mobile Phone System Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS) in North America. AMPS and similar networks in Europe and Asia formed the basis of what is commonly regarded as the first generation of mobile telephone service.

Since this model was marketed, a dominant trend in cellular phone design is smaller and lighter units.


Meanwhile, improvements in the size and portability of mobile telephones had failed to keep pace with advances in wireless telephone transmission. Mobile telephones remained large and bulky; most were installed in automobiles, although some were sufficiently portable to be carried in large bags or cases. The Motorola prototype developed under Cooper’s leadership remained the lone handheld model. Motorola had continued to develop the handheld mobile phone during the 1970’s and to petition the FCC to approve it for commercial use. The FCC granted Motorola permission to market a handheld mobile telephone, called the DynaTAC 8000x, in 1983, and also approved a cellular network for its use. The DynaTAC, known colloquially as “the Brick,” was ten inches long, was rectangular, and weighed 28 ounces. Its relative portability, combined with the federally mandated breakup of chief rival the Bell System, propelled Motorola to the forefront of the cellular telephone industry.

The sharp increase in cellular telephone subscribers in the United States during the 1980’s prompted the FCC to allot more frequencies for cellular network use. In 1989, the FCC began granting licenses to cellular telephone companies to operate in the FM range previously designated for ultrahigh frequency (UHF) television channels 70 through 83. Bandwidth remained a critical issue in subsequent years as the number of cellular telephone users grew. Security also increasingly became a source of concern, as analog cellular telephone signals were transmitted unscrambled and were easily monitored with scanners. These concerns, along with advances in digital information technology, inspired the creation of second-generation digital cellular telephone service in the 1990’s.

More dramatic and visible advances occurred in telephone technology during this period, the most conspicuous of which was a steady decrease in the size of cellular telephones. Miniaturization of memory chips and other electronic components in cellular phones drove this decrease in size and allowed the inclusion of other features, such as digital cameras and Internet capability. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a third generation of wireless cellular communication designed to facilitate the use of multimedia services was in its formative stages.


Before the Federal Communications Commission granted permission for the establishment of the first cellular telephone networks in 1983, mobile telephones were expensive, cumbersome, and rare. By the end of the twentieth century, wireless cellular telephone networks, connected to each other and to conventional land-based networks, had spread across the developed world. Many of the telephones connected to these networks were also multipurpose communications devices featuring other services such as Internet and e-mail access, text-messaging capability, and various multimedia functions.

Mass production of inexpensive electronic components resulted in a steady decline in the price of cellular telephones and service during the late twentieth century. Companies offering cellular service began offering telephones at a very low cost, and later for free, to subscribers in exchange for long-term service contracts or advance purchase of a specified amount of service time. By the end of the century, cellular telephone use had become commonplace in the United States and other developed countries. While the benefits of cellular telephones with regard to convenience, efficiency, and safety were evident, the widespread use of wireless telephones was also criticized as a factor contributing to increased social isolation and job stress as well as a breakdown in family dynamics and public etiquette. Telephone technology;cellular phones Cellular telephones Telecommunications;telephony Mobile telephone industry Motorola DynaTAC[Dynatac]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galambos, Louis, and Eric John Abrahamson. Anytime, Anywhere: Entrepreneurship and the Creation of a Wireless World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Detailed narrative of the evolution of the cellular telephone industry from a business perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Stephen W. Cellular Telephones and Pagers: An Overview. Boston: Newnes, 2006. General guide to cellular telephone technology. Covers technological trends and discusses possibilities for future development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, James B., Jr. Wireless Nation: The Frenzied Launch of the Cellular Revolution in America. New York: Perseus Books, 2001. History of wireless communications with emphasis on the administrative and corporate wrangling that characterized the early development of the cellular telephone industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steinbock, Dan. The Mobile Revolution: The Making of Mobile Services Worldwide. Philadelphia: Kogan Page, 2007. Provides a global perspective on the development of cellular telephone networks. Discusses the role of Martin Cooper, Motorola, and the DynaTAC in the development of the wireless communications industry.

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Categories: History