‘Father of the cell phone,’ 88, still bullish on mobile
December 28, 2016
Updated: December 28, 2016 6:00am
December 28, 2016
Updated: December 28, 2016 6:00am
Martin “Marty” Cooper claimed his place in technology history 43 years ago when he demonstrated a handheld cellular phone. But back then, he didn’t grasp how fully the concept would transform modern life.
Spry and energetic, the “father of the cellular phone,” as Cooper is sometimes known, is working with San Jose’s Energous to solve one of the biggest headaches that have followed his April 3, 1973, call — keeping batteries on mobile devices charged. The 3-year-old company is developing technology that beams electrical power to recharge a device without cords or wires from as far as 15 feet.
Making mobile technology easier to use will lead to further transformations, he believes.
“We’re only starting,” he said. “The things that are going to happen over the next 20 years are going to be even more remarkable. Not only are the phones going to adapt to us, but there’s going to be a revolution in education, a revolution in health care and the most important thing, productivity. We’re finally going to solve the biggest problem in the world today, and that’s poverty.”
In the early 1970s, Cooper, an engineer, was a vice president and general manager at Motorola, a two-way radio communications company embroiled in a heated race against larger rival AT&T.
AT&T and its powerhouse research unit Bell Laboratories had done pioneering work on car phones. In 1946, researchers there had made possible what AT&T describes as the “first mobile telephone call” by a driver in St. Louis, complete with nearly 80 pounds of equipment in his vehicle. The next year, Bell Labs engineer Douglas Ring wrote an internal company memo that was the first to outline the concept of a cellular telephone system.
Motorola, for its part, got ideas about the future by observing how its customers used two-way radio. So in 1972, Cooper, who had also been working on pagers, assembled a team to create a handheld stand-alone device that went beyond a car phone.
“We recognized the fact that people are inherently mobile,” he said. “And anything that you do to make somebody constrained, like a wire for your telephone, or you have to be in the car to talk, it’s unnatural.”
By spring of 1973, Cooper’s team had developed a working prototype, called the DynaTAC, short for dynamic adaptive total area coverage. It was a bulky, 9-inch-long handset with about 1,000 parts and a paltry 20 minutes of battery life.
The phone weighed 2 pounds. “So the 20 minutes was not a problem, because you couldn’t hold the phone up for 20 minutes,” Cooper said.
The team made a few cellular calls in private but felt they needed to publicly demonstrate the new phone. Having set up two demonstration cellular sites in New York, Motorola called a news conference in a Hilton Hotel in Manhattan, where Cooper made a call — to a wrong number, the New York Times reported at the time.
“After an embarrassed pause, (Cooper) said, ‘Our new phone can’t eliminate that, computer or not,’” the Times story reported. The journalists in attendance then tried the phones for themselves; one wife told her husband, “Your voice sounds a little tinny.”
Cooper said the actual first public call was supposed to be placed earlier that morning on NBC’s “Today” show, but the segment was bumped for another story. So he had a spur-of-the-moment idea: While walking across Sixth Avenue to the news conference with a radio reporter, Cooper said he decided to dial his counterpart at rival Bell Labs, Joel Engel.
“I took a chance and called him. And he answered the phone,” he recalled. “He happened to be in the office. And I said, ‘Hi, Joel, it’s Marty Cooper. Joel, I’m talking to you from a cellular phone, a real cellular phone, a personal, portable, handheld cellular phone.’ Silence on the other end of the line. To this day, Joel doesn’t remember that call, and I guess I don’t blame him.”
Indeed, Engel has repeatedly said he doesn’t remember Cooper’s call.
“We’re not denying that it took place; it just wasn’t very memorable,” Engel, now 80, said this month in a phone interview from his winter home in Florida. “We had made many, many cellular calls.”
Cooper can’t remember the name of the radio reporter he says was with him. But he does remember that the reporter pulled Cooper out of the way of an oncoming taxi as he talked, foreshadowing another hazard of modern life.
Richard Frenkiel, another Bell Labs wireless phone pioneer who authored AT&T’s cellular system proposal to the Federal Communications Commission in 1971, said Cooper was using a “concept example” of a “hand-carried phone,” but he noted that the first true commercial cellular system didn’t go into operation until 1983, after the FCC agreed to the operating rules.
“Marty likes to promote his version of history, and I’m used to it,” Frenkiel, now a senior consultant at the Wireless Information Network Laboratory at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said in an email.
Engel and Frenkiel were inducted into the Wireless History Foundation Hall of Fame this year for their work developing the basic architecture of cell phone networks. Engel is credited by the National Academy of Engineering with having “produced the system design for what became the first cellular telephone system.”
Cooper, a previous Hall of Fame inductee, and his team received the first patent for a portable cellular phone, said Liz Maxfield, the Hall of Fame’s executive director.
“The development of new technologies is a complicated process, and the evolution of cellular telephony is no different,” Maxfield said. “A number of remarkable individuals made key contributions to the development of cellular.”
Motorola’s initial payment plan for the cell phone sounds remarkably similar to the wireless bills of today. The company estimated in 1973 that the charges would run to $60 a month (plus additional fees), though it predicted they might eventually come down to $10 or $12 with rising usage, according to the New York Times.
But it would take another 10 years before Motorola was able to get a license from the FCC for the first commercially available cell phone, the DynaTAC 8000X, which cost $4,000. And it wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s that cell phones became more common.
Now, there are more than 6 billion cell phones worldwide. The United Nations says that more people have the devices than have access to a toilet.
Cooper didn’t envision all that.
“People ask me what I was thinking about, was this a historic moment when I made the first public call,” Cooper said. “Really, all I was thinking (was), ‘Boy, I hope this thing works.’”
Cooper, who was born in Chicago, left Motorola before the launch of the DynaTAC 8000X to start a cellular billing company. He and his wife, entrepreneur and wireless Hall of Fame member Arlene Harris, have co-founded several other companies. These include Dyna, a business incubator, and GreatCall, the firm that makes Jitterbug, cell phones with bigger buttons and easy-to-use controls that are marketed to seniors.
The resident of Del Mar (San Diego County), who also serves on two federal technology advisory committees, joined the Energous board of directors last year.
Energous’ products, branded WattUp, can recharge mobile device batteries by sending radio waves carrying tightly focused beams of electricity from a transmitter to a receiving chip without the need to plug in a charging cord. The company expects to ship one version of WattUp early next year; though cordless, it requires the device to be placed in contact with the transmitter, similar in effect to wireless charging methods already common for some phones and powered toothbrushes.
Ultimately WattUp wants to be able to beam power over the air. And it is seeking federal approval for two future versions of WattUp: One can work on any device within a 3-foot radius and another works within a 15-foot radius. The power transmitter can be hidden in the TV monitor’s frame to automatically sense when phones, remote controls, smart home devices and other battery-powered devices need a charge.
Cooper said he’s enthusiastic about the technology because it would free consumers from worrying about recharging — useful for devices like his hearing aid. It would also help usher in a future in which implanted sensors or other wearables will monitor a person’s health signs to detect a disease “before it actually happens.”
“Now how are you going to charge the batteries in all of those things?” he said. “Wireless charging is inevitable.”
William Gibson, senior research analyst with Roth Capital Partners, said Energous has to surmount some big hurdles, such as getting approval from the FCC and persuading device makers to include its technology. But he said the company is meeting certain milestones, and it recently received a $10 million investment from Dialog Semiconductor of the United Kingdom.
Cooper keeps up with Facebook and Twitter and is working on a book, with a collaborator, about his life. During the recent interview in his San Jose office, he mostly kept his smartphone — a Motorola, of course — in his pocket. But he took it out and slipped off the back to demonstrate its customizable design.
Technology, he resolutely believes, is a force for good: By definition, it’s “the application of science to create products and services that make people’s lives better,” he said.
“When people talk about technology, they’re forgetting about the people part. If you can’t make people’s lives better, it’s not technology.”