The evolution of the mobile phone: from the first brick of a cell phone to the latest smartphone.
It’s hard to imagine a world without a smartphone in nearly every pocket. But this wasn’t always the case. Cell phones are a rather new invention, after all. What do you know about the history of mobile phones? When did the iPhone come out? What about the first flip phone? Do you remember snake on those old Nokia phones?
A Brief Prehistory of Mobile Phones
When was the first patent for a mobile phone filed in the US? Take a guess. Did you think it was 1908? No? Neither did we! People have tried to create mobile phones for a longer time than we’d think. In fact, the history of communication is the history of a single dream. We’ve always wanted to be able to talk to each other, everywhere and anytime.We’ve tried different things. From smoke signals, to telegrams and eventually the telephone. Our current smartphones are the latest part of a long line of ideas and inventions.
But back to 1908. A Kentucky farmer named Nathan Stubblefield filed patent nr. 887357A for what he called a wireless telephone. It worked by having a central station and various senders and receivers. Electromagnetic radiation made it possible to talk and hear each other. That made it possible to have a group conversation, with everyone 10 miles away from each other. In other words, a precursor to the zoom call of today.
Stubblefield imagined a US nationwide communication network based on his early design. Sadly, he had trouble with getting the signal to work over longer distances. The invention of the vacuum tube, which powered early radios, would technically make it possible. But by then Stubblefield was no longer making any progress on his work. He died in 1928 virtually unknown and was buried in an unmarked grave.
His dream did not die with him however. Thankfully, the history of mobile phones did not end there. Stubblefield’s ideas worked their way to other engineers. Slowly, the technology of the modern cell phone was being built.
When did Cell Phones come out?
Fast forward about 50 years to 1973 and the first ‘real’ mobile phone was being developed. Does that mean nothing happened in the history of mobile phones for 50 years? No. In the in between years Stubblefield’s technology was improved upon with the creation of car and train phones. These were wireless in the sense that they did not need a connection to a landline in order to work. But you couldn’t take them everywhere, as a truly mobile phone would let you.
The breakthrough came in 1973 with the first successful call from a mobile phone. Martin Cooper, research executive at Motorola, called his competitor Joel S. Engel at Bell Labs from a working prototype. The phone he used for this power move was a Motorola DynaTAC 8000x.
The DynaTAC 8000x was massive. It was about 30cm high and weighed about a kilo. That earned it its famous nickname: the brick. It also cost 3,995 dollars when it came out. In today’s money that’s about 10.000 dollars. You needed to charge it for 10 hours to be able to call for 30 minutes. Despite these obvious downsides, the DynaTAC was a major succes when it officially first came out in 1983.
1983? But didn’t we just say the first workable prototype was finished in 1973? Yes. It took 10 years for the technology to be released to the public for real. In this time the phone network was setup. The technology needed to send and receive telephone calls. It was the true precursor of moder phone networks and is commonly referred to as 1G, or the first generation.
The first 1G network in the world was launched in Japan in 1979 by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone. The first US network was launched in 1983 by Ameritec, the company now known as AT&T. This laid the groundwork needed for the commercial launch of the first truly mobile phone in history.
The Age of Nokia
The 90s saw the next phase in the history of mobile phones as well as the rise of one of the most famous telephone companies: Nokia. Nokia was founded in 1865 as a paper mill on the Nokianvirta river. Over the years they dabbled in various industries. When the modern Nokia corporation was created through the merger of three companies in 1967, they made various different products. From car tires to home electronics and military appliences.
After the first 1G network was created in scandinavia in 1981, Nokia started developing mobile phones. The first phone they made was the Mobira Cityman 300 in 1987. At the same time they started developing 2G network technology. This would add the SMS function to telephones. The first 2G network was launched in 1991 in Finland.
2G was a revolution in the history of mobile phones. Cell phones were becoming cheap enough for anyone to use. Not only that, but the added SMS functionality changed the way we speak and think. In 2008, right before it started to shut down, 2G networks were used by 3 billion people worldwide.
Nokia’s influence and power in the mobile phone market came to a height in 2000 with the launch of the Nokia 3310. It’s the phone everyone remembers. The phone that introduced snake to the world.
When did the first smartphone come out?
After all this, you’d think the first smartphone came out after the Nokia 3310, right? You’d be wrong. The first smartphone to be launched was IBM’s Simon. It launched in 1992 and cost $899. You could call with it it, send emails and faxes. For it’s time it was revolutionary, but given its price and that its battery only lasted for an hour, only 50.000 Simons were sold.
The first popular smartphone, at least among businessmen, was a Blackberry. Their first smartphone, the Blackberry 5810 came in 2002. For the first time a phone would have the full qwerty keyboard.
Perhaps the biggest contribution of Blackberry was their messaging service. With Blackberry Messenger, or BBM, you could send messages, voice notes, images and videos to any other Blackberry quickly and free of charge.
The Blackberry was very popular in its heyday. Probably the most famous user of their phones was Barack Obama. He became famously dependent on his phone during his campaign for presidency. He even insisted to keep using it after he became president, despite the security risks. In fact, he only stopped using his Blackberry in 2016. That’s well after the company lost most of its customers.
Blackberry’s eventual fall came at the hands of one of the most iconic smartphones ever launched. In fact, if we say the word smartphone, this phone is the one you’re most likely thinking of. Of course, it’s the iPhone.
Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone in 2007. And with this, the history of the mobile phone has almost reached its end. For now. It only had a touchscreen, but with the full qwerty keyboard. The first iPhone only worked on the 2G network and it still sold 6 million times before it was discontinued.
The big change came when the iPhone 3G launched. It worked on a brand new cellular network, which allowed for far faster internet speeds on your phone. Apple made good use of this by launching the App Store in July 2008. It was such a succes that by the end of its first quarter, 16.8 Billion apps had been downloaded on iPhones.
Other companies tried to copy Apple’s succes. Google launched the Android OS a year after the first iPhone. HTC made the first Android phone, the HTC Dream. Samsung, now the biggest android phone producer, made it’s first smartphone in 2009.
In the following years internet speeds increased with the launch of 4G and lately 5G. Smartphones kept getting smaller, faster and more powerful. But the basic design of current smartphones is still more or less the same as the original iPhone.
The Future History of the Mobile Phone
It’s only been 50 years since the launch of the Motorola DynaTAC. And just over 20 years since the Nokia 3310. So imagine what a smartphone would look like 20, or 50 years in the future. The phone you are currently using might look like a brick to kids growing up in the 2060s and 2070s.
The dreams of people like Nathan Stubblefield and Steve Jobs, faster and easier communication worldwide, continue to drive innovation. Let’s see where it takes us next.
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