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Martin "Marty" Cooper was the Motorola engineer who spearheaded the development of an invention that most Americans cannot live without — the handheld mobile phone. 

How did a man with a 20th century education create a 21st century device?  We’ll investigate this paradox in this week’s CommenTerry.

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Occasionally when speaking to a group, I tell them that I welcome hearing cell phones ring during the presentation.  While some believe that the spontaneous eruption of a ringtone is a distraction, I believe that it is a much-needed and underappreciated reminder of one of the greatest inventions of the last 50 years.

Marty Cooper began working as an engineer for Motorola in the late 1950s, and in the early 1970s, he became the head of the company’s communication systems division.  The leading telecommunications company at the time, AT&T, had invented cellular communications technology, but they failed to see the potential of applying that technology to devices beyond car phones. Cooper and his colleagues began to think beyond the automobile and based their concept for a handheld phone on an idea that was revolutionary at the time but taken for granted today — a telephone number should represent a person rather than a location.

As with most great technological innovations, science fiction played a major role in the development of this new technology.  Cooper remarked that the communicators used by characters on the 1960s television show Star Trek served as an inspiration for his invention.  During an interview for a documentary with the (hopefully self-deprecating) title, How William Shatner Changed the World, Cooper remarked, "Suddenly, there was Captain Kirk, talking on his communicator; talking with no dialing.  That was not a fantasy to us, although to the rest of the world it was.  But to me that was an objective."  Motorola engineers began work on a prototype of the phone in the early 1970s and developed a working model in 1973.

As the story goes, Cooper stood outside of the New York Hilton on April 3, 1973 and called Joel Engel, his counterpart at the venerated Bell Labs.  The 44-year-old Cooper purportedly told Engel, "Hi, it’s Marty; I’m calling you on a ‘real’ cell phone."  He recalled that Bell Labs researchers, including Engel, were irritated that anyone "had the temerity to challenge Bell Labs."  After all, Motorola was a small, Illinois-based company founded around 50 years after Alexander Graham Bell’s father-in-law organized the iconic Bell Telephone Company (later American Telephone and Telegraph Company or AT&T).

It took ten years and millions of dollars for Motorola to bring the cell phone to the consumer market.  In 1983, the company marketed the DynaTAC 8000X Advanced Mobile Phone System, a $4,000, phone that weighed 2.5 pounds and had a battery life of 20 minutes.  They nicknamed it, "the brick."  Cooper joked, "The battery lifetime was 20 minutes, but that wasn’t really a big problem because you couldn’t hold that phone up for that long."

Once cellular phone technology hit the free market, something entirely predictable happened.  The quality and reliability of calls improved.  Phones got smaller, thinner, and lighter.  Battery life went from minutes to hours.  The price of cell phones dropped, and they became affordable to most Americans.  By the beginning of the 21st century, the capabilities of the phones advanced in unimaginable ways, thanks to advances in computer technology and the creation of the Internet by Al Gore. 

In fact, what was once a piece of technology for the privileged few became standard-issue technology for billions worldwide.  According to a report published by ITU Telecommunication Development Sector, in 2013 there were approximately 6.8 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions, triple the number of subscriptions since 2005.  Much of that growth is a direct result of the exponential growth of mobile phone usage in developing economies (See Facts and Stats below).

At this point, you may be wondering how the invention of cell phones (and later smartphones) informs education policy.  

We hear state education officials speak confidently about the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in a 21st century economy.  But, as I have written in the past, the so-called 21st century economy demands that public school students master the same communication, computational, and critical thinking skills required for success in the 20th century economy.

Surely there was nothing particularly "21st century" about Marty Cooper’s education.  In fact, Cooper and his competitors at Bell Labs shared a knowledge base largely developed in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

The difference was one of ideas.  Cooper was able to employ his skills, knowledge, and experience to transform an idea into technology that literally changed the world.

Facts and Stats

Mobile-cellular subscriptions (in millions)








































Source: ITU Telecommunication Development Sector, "Key ICT indicators for developed and developing countries and the world," 2013.

Acronym of the Week

AT&T — American Telephone and Telegraph Company

Quote of the Week

"It’s good to let your mind run free, to think of new ideas, new ways of doing things, to day dream. But an inventor needs a foundation of science, of engineering, of education to make these dreams come true. An inventor needs imagination AND practical knowledge."

– Martin Cooper, "History/Science Project Q&A," May 2010, p. 7.

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