How the Cellphone was Born: Three Months of Craziness

Season 1 • Episode 8

In the early 1970s, “mobile phones” were car phones: Permanently installed monstrosities that filled up your trunk with boxes and, in a given city, could handle only 20 calls at a time. Nobody imagined that there’d be a market for handheld, pocketable cellphones; the big phone companies thought the idea was idiotic. But Marty Cooper, now 92, saw a different future for cellular technology—and he had 90 days to make it work. A story of corporate rivalry, Presidential interference…and unquenchable optimism. 

Guests: Marty Cooper, father of the cellphone. Arlene Cooper, technology entrepreneur.

Episode transcript

Marty Cooper Cell Phone Inventor 

Theme begins.

When Marty Cooper dreamed up the idea for an invention called a cellphone in 1973, it wasn’t a popular idea.

POGUE: You’re telling me people thought that the cell phone was a dumb idea?

MARTY: Absolutely. No– (LAUGH) no question about it.

Today, at 92, Marty Cooper considers today’s cellphone only the crudest precursor of what’s to come.

MARTY: Oh, David, we have– are only at the very, very beginning. We are going to revolutionize mankind in many ways. 

I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”


Season 1, Episode 8: How the Cellphone Was Invented.

Now, unfortunately, I don’t have some great chronology milestone to justify why we’re doing this topic now. This isn’t, like, the 50th anniversary of the cellphone—it’s only the 48th. It’s not the 100th birthday of the guy who invented it—he’s only 92. 

But I do have one little news hook: That inventor, Marty Cooper, has just published his memoir. It’s called “Cutting the Cord,” which is a title he hates.

POGUE: (LAUGH) You don’t like the title?

MARTY: Well, it turns out it was not original. And several other people used it. I didn’t know that at the time. I’d like to think I’m a good amateur marketer. But I didn’t– I’m not a good book marketer.

The other reason for dedicating an episode of “Unsung Science” —which is a title I love, by the way—is that Marty is an exceptionally cool, smart, funny, humble, thoughtful dude. This world can always use more Marty Cooper.

So let’s begin at the beginning: Marty’s childhood in Chicago. 

POGUE: When you were a little kid, did any of the signs of your current personality exhibit themselves?

MARTY: I spent a lot of time alone when I was a child. My folks actually had a grocery store at that time in their lives. And, of course, they both had to work– at this thing. So I spent time alone and became a very avid reader. And even at the age of eight or nine years old, I thought automobiles were wonderful. I just loved the– I knew every model, year, and every feature on every car.

I ended up going to what they called a technical school. / I think they would call it a trade school now. And yet I got a very good education in liberal arts, and at the same time took a shop every year, woodshop– metal shop, forge, foundry.

And I– I can’t tell you how valuable those kinds of things were. I still get a thrill out of fixing things. When I fix an appliance or program the lights in the house, I get instant gratification. 

When he was about 18, he found out that the U.S. Navy was offering a fantastic deal. They’d pay for college tuition, books, and incidental expenses—if Marty would agree to spend three summers with the Navy, and then three years after graduation. He loved the experience. “My time in the military taught me about leadership, responsibility, and getting along with people,” he writes in his book.

Those traits came in handy a few years later, when he was an executive at Motorola, the leading maker of two-way radios for police, taxi companies, and the military. Its bread and butter was car phones. 

POGUE: So these– these car telephones were not cellular car telephones?

MARTY: That’s correct. 

They were literally two-way radios. Asynchronous audio, in other words. You couldn’t talk at the same time. Like, you’d say, “Hi, honey—I’ll be home late, over.” And honey would say, “I’ll start dinner without you, over.” 

They were also not what you’d call mobile phones—apart from, you know, being part of your car. The car phone’s electronics fit into what looked like three big suitcases; they had to be wired into your trunk.

MARTY: Weighed 30 pounds. And there was a huge cable about this big around that went from the trunk to the front, and then there was a con– what we call a control head– with the dial and the stuff. And then there was a speaker off in a corner, and there was a microphone coming off. So the– just the installation of this thing alone was– a major job.

But there was a bigger problem with car phones: Calling capacity. 

MARTY: They had one transmitter in a city, and– and a very limited amount of radio channels. And so you could only serve so many people. 

If you tried to make a phone call during the middle of the day, you could never get an operator. The chances were– one in 20 that you could make a phone call, that’s how bad that– service was with the car telephones. It really was not a mass– product.

Now, the cellular network is quite different. Today, we’ve got cellular antenna clusters, known as cell sites, on towers all over the U.S.—over 415,000 of them. Your call gets handed off from one cell site to another as you move around—a system that drastically increases the number of calls that can be going on simultaneously.

An engineer at Bell Labs had dreamed up this idea way back in 1947. Whereupon it had been promptly forgotten.

MARTY: And they put this idea in the drawer and somebody 22 years later pulled it out of the drawer and said, “Hey, maybe we should– execute this.”

Cut to 1969. Bell Labs is now the research division of AT&T. AT&T wants to expand its carphone business—and get around that awful capacity problem. So it dusts off the cellular proposal and approaches the government about getting a monopoly on this new technology.

MARTY: They went to the FCC and said, “We want to continue our monopoly in telephones.” So they concluded that they were gonna build this new system– that they called cellular. And I was at Motorola at the time, and we objected to both of those.

a– Bell system was gonna come along and they were gonna take over our business as well as this whole new thing, and do it wrong. Do (LAUGH) it with– with car telephones!

People had been– had been wired to their desks in their kitchens for over 100 years. And now they’re gonna wire us to our cars where we spend 5% of our time.

Motorola was really worried. If the FCC gave AT&T an exclusive on the cellular airwaves, that would be the end of Motorola’s primary business. The company desperately wanted the FCC to open up cellular to competition—not to give AT&T a monopoly. I should point out that at the time, AT&T was the world’s biggest corporation. 

Marty Cooper wanted to show the FCC the kind of potential that cellular might have beyond car phones—if there were competition in the marketplace. As he saw it, these phones could one day be battery-powered, and fit in your pocket! You could carry it around with you! RADICAL!

POGUE: So you were proposing, back in 1973, that– s– cell phones should be completely untethered, not part of a car, but in your pocket. Why wasn’t everyone saying, “That’s the greatest idea I’ve ever heard. We’ll sell hundreds of billions”?

MARTY: It turns out that people are not very good at predicting th– the future, in general. 

POGUE: Y– you’re telling me people thought that the cell phone was a dumb idea?

MARTY: Absolutely. No– (LAUGH) no question about it.

POGUE: Well, I guess it takes a dreamer-slash-executive to bring it about.

MARTY: Well, when you think about it, at the time, the internet hadn’t been invented yet. There were no digital cameras. The large scale integrated circuit hadn’t been created. The lithium ion battery had not been created.

So the idea that you could put all these things together in a box/you really had to– have a little bit of imagination. 

There’s a great quote by Joel Engel, the engineer who ran the Bell Labs car phone program—basically, Marty Cooper’s arch-rival. Engel said in 2007, “None of us—the FCC, Motorola, AT&T, anybody at that time in the 70s, did not anticipate these things. We thought the business was going to be purely business usage—real estate agents, home repair, people who were in their vehicle a lot. We didn’t anticipate teenage kids using cellular phones. We didn’t anticipate personal residential use. We also didn’t anticipate they’d be handheld pocket-sized units. We completely missed the individual usage.”

Given that mindset, how could Motorola possibly convince the FCC that a pocket phone could be a thing—if the FCC would just open up the airwaves to competition?

MARTY: So I thought about, “How could we do a dazzling demonstration?” The only way to do it is to have a working something. /

Marty decided that the most direct way to spark the FCC’s imagination—was to build an actual working cellphone, thereby leaving nothing to the FCC’s imagination.

There was only one problem: The FCC hearing about AT&T’s petition was only three months away. Marty began tearing around Motorola, from one department to another, to build this thing.

MARTY: And the first guy that I went to was not the engineers, it was the industrial designer, Rudy Krolapp.

And I told Rudy, “We’re gonna make a cellular phone.” (LAUGH) And his reaction was, “What’s a cellular phone?” So I– and I described that to him, and he stopped working on anything else. He took his whole team of people and assigned them to conceive of what a handheld personal phone might look like.

POGUE: You actually figured out what it would look like before you had what would go into it?

MARTY: Absolutely.

POGUE: Isn’t that backwards?

MARTY: Th– well, it– that’s what this was. We were tryin’ to get people excited about this thing. 

You’ve probably seen pictures of the winning design. It’s this rectangular beige block, like a Soviet Army field telephone or something. Or, as Marty says, like a shoe.

MARTY: The phone that we ended up picking was the simplest one. Looked like a shoe, but it was one piece. We knew if we made something with l– with– complications, it would break.

The thing is, the original design was tiny! I got to handle the original model that the designers gave Marty—it’s like five inches tall! Like they’d taken the one you’ve seen in pictures and blasted it with a shrink ray.

POGUE: W– wait a minute. This isn’t a miniature, this is what they actually had in mind?

MARTY: That’s exactly right. (LAUGH)

POGUE: It’s a tenth the size of the final one.

MARTY: Yeah, well, that’s– the reason for the increase in size is exactly here. 

He showed me a huge glob of circuit boards and wiring.

POGUE: So they had to fit all this stuff into–

MARTY: Of this phonethis is everything in the phone except the battery.  

POGUE: So the designers–proposed this. And by the time you put all that stuff in, it wound up–

MARTY: It grew to this size. (LAUGH) 

Now that Marty had the shell, Moto engineers had to design the guts.

MARTY: They assigned their top engineer, who is a fellow named Don Linder.  and– Don says– “I don’t think that can be done. (LAUGH) And certainly not in three months.” And I persuaded him to try. I used– my management style, which was different. In other words, I gave him a big hug. (LAUGH)

We gave him carte blanche, as many people as he wanted to get. There was a crew of 20 people working on this device.  I was his go-fer. He needed a piece of technology, a new filter, a new integrated circuit, and I was running around the corporation. I knew where everything was.

And these guys did it. In three months, they actually demonstrated a working unit. It was just wonderful.

POGUE: And what kind of battery life did the phone get?

MARTY: You could talk for 25 minutes (LAUGH) before the– before the phone ran down. 

Marty Cooper also made history by making the first public cellphone call. It was April 3rd, 1973. It was a PR stunt. One of the network morning shows was supposed to film this big moment on the streets of New York, but wound up canceling at the last minute. (These morning TV people, you know? Jeez!) 

MARTY: So our PR people were– h– in deep trouble. They just scrounged around. They told me that they had this replacement.  

So we met this guy on Sixth Avenue in New York, in front of the Hilton.  I thought, “You know, I’m gonna call my counterpart in the Bell system.” And I looked up the number of Joel Engel, who ran the Bell system car telephone program.

POGUE: This is your arch rival.

MARTY: Yeah, he was. (LAUGH) He’s still not very fond of me, by the way. And I said– “Hi, Joel, it’s Marty Cooper.” He said, “Hi, Marty.” Very polite. And I said– “Joel, I’m calling you on a cell phone, but a real cell phone, a personal, handheld portable cell phone.” Silence on the other end of the line.  Joel does not remember that conversation to this day. And I– I guess I don’t blame him. (LAUGH)

POGUE: Well, I mean, you were rubbing your heel in his face, in a way.

MARTY: Yeah. Well, I– he deserved it. (LAUGH)

A few weeks later, Marty gave a similar demo to the FCC commissioners. They rode in a Motorola van, making cellphone calls as they drove around Washington—and their calls never dropped! That’s because Motorola had installed three cell towers around the city, and carefully mapped out a route that would always remain within their range. 

So? Did it work? Did Marty Cooper’s crazy gambit of creating one single working cellphone convince the U.S. government not to give AT&T a monopoly?

As if you didn’t know!

After the break—I’ll give you the details.


Before the break, I was telling you how Marty Cooper ran around Motorola, getting buy-in from the various departments, to produce a working cellphone in three months. The idea was to convince the FCC to open the cellular airwaves to competition—to prove that competition leads to innovation. And above all, not to give AT&T an exclusive on this new tech.

OK—and now, finally, the big punch line. Did Motorola’s stunt work? Did the working cellphone prototype convince the FCC? Here’s Marty Cooper again. 

MARTY: When the FCC finally made their decision they actually allowed half of the telephones to be built by the Bell system. And this other half to be done by independent operators.

POGUE: So you did all this for the benefit of Motorola, your employer?

MARTY: Of course.

POGUE: But as a side benefit, you opened up the entire world of cell phones to the marketplace. You ensured that it wouldn’t be an AT&T/Bell Labs monopoly.

MARTY: Well, that’s right.

But the cellphone era didn’t exactly get under way immediately. 

MARTY: It took over ten years to get the technology right and get the FCC to decide who was gonna provide the service. So the first actual service didn’t happen until October of 1983, ten years later.

At one point during that decade of waiting, Motorola’s DynaTAC phone was ready to go—but the FCC was still dithering over how to regulate the new industry.

Motorola founder Bob Galvin went straight to the top—he showed the working phone to the Vice President. Of the United States. George H. W. Bush.

MARTY: And Bush called his wife. And he– and he said to Bob, “You know, Ron’s gonna look at this.” (LAUGH) And the next thing you know, everyone’s there in the office with Ronald Reagan. And Re– and Reagan called Nancy. (LAUGH) and he says to– George, “George– why don’t we have this?” And George says, “Well, the FCC is kinda dragging.” He says, “Would you call them and tell them to get this thing on the road?” (LAUGH) And within a couple of months they (LAUGH) made a decision, but it took that kind of a thing to– to make it actually– happen.

And presto: In 1983, you could buy an actual, portable, battery-powered, wireless, pocketable cellphone —well, coat-pocketable.

MARTY: They cost $4,000 in 1983 dollars, which would be like having a $10,000 cell phone today. So there were not a lot of sales, but they were sold. With time, as the system developed, within ten years, you couldn’t buy a car telephone anymore. All the phones were now handheld.

There are more phones– more cell phones in the world today than there are people. Two-thirds of people on Earth have cell phones. That’s an amazing number. 

POGUE: Did you get fantastically wealthy from inventing the cell phone?

MARTY: No. Why, as a matter of fact– when I joined Motorola in 1954,  I assigned to Motorola all the intellectual property that I might come up with, all the inventions, ideas to Motorola for $1. And, David, that was the best deal I ever did in my life.

POGUE: Best deal?!

MARTY: I– it was. Motorola treated me wonderfully. And– they allowed me to have a productive career, and I have been thankful to the– the– all of the managers and people– at Motorola who propagated that environment. 

I should mention that I was talking to Marty at his home in Del Mar, California—an absolutely gorgeous house directly on the beach. Bill Gates has a home a few doors down. 

Marty’s something of a fitness nut—even at 92, he does weights three times a week, and often walks along this beach, where we chatted about his book—and his movie.

POGUE: So I understand that your book has been optioned for the movies?

MARTY: Yeah, it has by a guy named Dana Brunetti, who did the– the House of Cards. And– and he did The– Social Networkmovie–

POGUE: Well, who’s gonna play you in the movie?

MARTY: I was hoping that you would do it, David. (LAUGH) You– you– you’re the only star that I know. So–

POGUE: I could be persuaded. (LAUGHTER)

MARTY: You would– you wouldn’t do it as a privilege (LAUGH) to play me? I thought that at least you could do.

POGUE: Have your people talk to my people.

MARTY: Yeah, right. (LAUGHTER) 

Anyway, the point is, despite signing away all his intellectual rights to Motorola for a dollar, Marty is not exactly hurting.

POGUE: (LAUGH)  So if I can ask, so the– the– the beauty and the beachfront house… is this from your subsequent businesses, the income?

MARTY: Yeah. Well, I was lucky enough to get hooked up with a wonderful woman, and we’ve created a partnership. And we’ve been starting businesses.  We’ve had some failures over the way, but we’ve had enough successes. So the world has treated us very well.

That’d be Marty’s second wife, Arlene Harris, a technology innovator in her own right. Marty left Motorola in 1983, and married Arlene in 1991. Together, they’ve founded a string of companies in the cellular industry. 

ARLENE: And so I met Marty at a conference in Carmel–

ARLENE: –in 1979.

MARTY: At which I was speaking.

ARLENE: He was speaking. He was a bigwig coming in from Motorola, Chicago. You know, the– the– the guy that everybody sort of had big eyes about. And he came in and told us his prognostications about what cellular was gonna be, it was an inspirational talk. 

POGUE: Were you starstruck?   Were you impressed by his intellect at his talk?

MARTY: I can’t speak for Arlene, but I was star struck (LAUGH) with Arlene. We– we– c– started out with a minor conversation in the bar.  And that conversation has been going on for 42 years, still going on. 

POGUE: Isn’t the general advice for relationships not to work with your spouse?

MARTY: –we don’t agree about– everything. But– you know, that’s the spice of life is disagreement, as long as your– if it’s friendly. 

POGUE: (LAUGH) But it seems like, if there’s a technological dispute, can’t you just go, “I’ll have you know I’m the father of the cell phone.” Wouldn’t you automatically win?


One of their companies created the Jitterbug phone, designed for seniors, now owned by Best Buy. My dad used a Jitterbug phone for awhile.

ARLENE: The whole idea was to simplify it.  Big buttons and a screen that had larger fonts. It was just a  phone was a phone and nothing else.

MARTY: With the Jitterbug phone, you would open the flip. And if you had a dial tone, you had a signal. And if you didn’t–, you didn’t. That was an example of simplicity.

Now, Marty Cooper seems like an affable, easy going guy. You might not immediately think of him as a rabble-rouser, a guy who throws bombs at the establishment. But he’s got one opinion that infuriates the executives and lobbyists for quite a few billion-dollar corporations.

MARTY: The myth is that radio frequencies are like beachfront property: Once you use it up, it’s gone. Total myth.

POGUE: Wai– wait, wait, wait, wait, (LAUGH) wait, wait, wait. You’re talkin’ about spectrum. We hear about the FCC auctioning off blocks of frequencies called spectrum auctions, right? And–

MARTY: For billions of dollars.

POGUE: Right because nature only gave us a fixed number of frequencies, and everybody wants ‘em. Radio, and television, and cellular, and the military, they’re all fighting over these limited, finite number of spectrum bands. We all know that.

MARTY: politicians know that. (LAUGH) But we engineers know that, when Marconi started out, here w– did the first commercial radio. /

That was the beginning. And he used up 100% of the radio spectrum doing that. And then the engineers came along and they figured out how you could have two people on Earth talking at the same time. And keep increasing that number. And then different technologies for squeezing more bits of information, more voice, into less and less spectrum.

12:36:22  And we’ve been doing that to the extent of we have doubled the capacity of this radio spectrum that we’ve been talking about, / We have / doubled it every 30 months for 120 years.

POGUE: What?

MARTY: it actually is ten trillion times increase in capacity between Marc– what Marconi did, and where– what we’re doing today. Part of it is that we’ve been going higher and higher and higher in frequency, that’s a very small part of it.

It’s —we just have learned how to be much more efficient. 

POGUE: Marty, I have been a technology reporter for 30 years and the fact that spectrum is precious and limited is– it’s been a given. Like, we know this.

MARTY: Well, you can see why I am ridiculed by most of society. (LAUGH) But the people that understand do subscribe to what I see.  they call the law of spectrum capacity Cooper’s Law. 

POGUE: Is it something like Moore’s Law?

MARTY: It’s exactly the same as Moore’s Law and the basis of it is that we’re so inefficient now that we have lots and lots of room to grow. 

With the law of– of spectrum capacity, we’re only in the beginning. We– we can go a trillion times more in capacity by just using radio– and– computing technology.

POGUE: I guess we haven’t run out of it yet. That’s true.

MARTY: You know, you are so smart. Now I know (LAUGH) why you make all the big bucks, David. We’ve never run out. We keep increasing the number of people that are benefiting– from this by orders of magnitude. And yet, we still don’t run out of spectrum. 

Marty is confident that the legend of limited radio frequencies is a charade—that new technologies will always let us keep ahead of demand.

MARTY: And I’ll give you another example. W– the towers that you– we’ve been talking about are all outside. Guess where most of our phone calls are?

POGUE: Inside. (LAUGH)

MARTY: And we– so we put out huge amounts of energy to penetrate our houses and buildings. In the future, we’re gonna be putting the cell sites in the buildings, little tiny cell sites.  But at some point, all these things are gonna be connected to each other– and much, much more efficient and much lower cost. And it turns out that there will an infinite amount of radio spectrum.

Marty does a lot of that…you know, thinking about the future. 

POGUE: one of the most surprising things you wrote in your book to me was that we are only at the dawn of the cell phone? 

MARTY: Oh, David, we have– are only at the very, very beginning. There are– we are going to revolutionize mankind in many ways. /

We now know that we can put a device in your ear or on your earlobe, under your skin, that has a computer in it. And you can call it, I can talk to that computer. And I’ll call my computer Sam and I’ll say, “Hey, Sam, get– David on the phone for me.”

And when we talk about health care, you will have sensors on your body, maybe under your skin.

And when fluid starts accumulating in your lungs, if that ever happens, that is a– the– precursor of a heart attack. If you know you’re gonna have a heart attack, you can stop it. Just think about that.

having what we call a cell phone now can eliminate congestive heart failure, which is like the third– highest cause of death– in people. And that– technology exists today.  It’s not in the future. 

ultimately it will be able to sense a few s– cancer cells. And as soon as those cancer cells appear to be getting out of control, you go to the hospital, go to a doctor, or someday you’ll be able to do it yourself. Zap the cells, cancer is gone.

POGUE: I mean, you’re talking about implanting technology in our bodies. I would normally say, “Come on, dude. That’s absurd.” The only problem is you’ve been right before. (LAUGH)

MARTY: Well, we do that all the time. Pacemakers we do that. Reckon that now that’s gotten to be– a very routine kinda something. 

But that’s just healthcare. Once everybody has a cellphone and internet access, there’ll be many, many more aspects of life that can improve.

MARTY: I believe that the whole process of education is going to be revolutionized. That having access to the internet, the– role of a teacher is going to change. Teachers are not gonna be just communicating information. Kids can do that for themselves. The teacher will be– advising people, teaching them how to use the tools. 

I know I sound like an optimist. But poverty is going to be a thing of the past. There is no reason for anybody in today’s society to be poor. 

The– the United Nations determined that, in Africa alone– over a period of 20 years, 1.2 billion people moved out of severe poverty largely because of the cell phone.

POGUE: What’s the mechanism?

MARTY: The mechanism was these people– poor people have no way to deal with money. They c– have no way to save money, they have no way to transfer money from one place to another. And people came along and invented– there was a system called M-Pesa where you didn’t need a bank to save money or to move money from one place to another.

It– this has stimulated entrepreneurism. Just that fact just moved–over a billion people out of poverty.

There were people– who– would loan money to a woman in a village in India so she could buy a cell phone which she would rent out to the local farmers, or the local fishermen. And they could call the neighboring villages and find out where there was a market– and increase their efficiency. Those are the real indicators what the future of the cell phone is and– and the way the cell phone is– is helping society. It is making us more efficient, more productive.

POGUE: Here’s what I find strange, Marty.  I know this is a stereotype, but as a 92-year-old guy, I might expect you to relish the stories from the past more than the s– the stories of the future.

MARTY: Well, my story of the past is that I have observed that things in the past have continued to improve. But if you examine every metric that exists today, we are better off today than we have been in the past. 

People are– are richer today. They are healthier today. There is more freedom today. There is more tolerance today than there has ever been before. We’ve still got a lot of problems– but there’s no reason to think that we aren’t gonna keep improving.

UNSUNG SCIENCE with David Pogue is presented by Simon & Schuster and CBS News, and produced by PRX Productions.  

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