The story of the mobile phone

Last night I stumbled across an old video from 1979 which showed something that was pretty amazing at the time. A truly portable phone.

It started me on a bit of a journey into the history of mobile phones, so here’s what I’ve dug out of the archives.


You were able to use a system before true mobile phones became commonplace. It was called the “Post Office Radiophone Service” here in the UK, and had been running since 1959. Here’s a typical bit of kit…

The story of the mobile phone

Image from QSL.net

It’s less of a phone and more of a walkie-talkie really. Even earlier, in the 1940’s, AT&T ran a Mobile Telephone Service. Although “cells” were being discussed in 1947, the systems at this time didn’t have any hand-over, so you stayed on one base station throughout the call and you needed an operator in-between. Using your “VHF radio” (for that’s what the 36kg subscriber equipment was), you’d contact the operator who would contact a land line and patch you through. Likewise, to receive a call someone would have to get hold of the operator and ask for your device. You can learn more on this BT page.

The story of the mobile phone

However, as the years passed they became more popular and more VHF channels were added. Despite this, demand was high and customers had to wait to place calls as channels were in use by others.

Fast-forward to 1979 and Margaret Thatcher has just become the Britain’s first female prime minister. A BBC TV programme called “Tomorrow’s World” regularly showed off the latest in tech and new inventions. Apart from shows like the “Gadget Show”, there’s not really anything like it on TV now, but here’s an experimental cordless mobile phone which could direct-dial into the standard land line network.

It was perhaps the first time anything like it had ever been seen. Imagine seeing this guy walking down the street in 1979 with a rotary phone to his ear. Would people have seen it as amazing or crazy? Sure, this was effectively just a standard phone plugged into the radio you saw above, but it was a sign of things to come. The next few years saw some really big changes..

Martin Cooper, a Motorola researcher and executive, had been working on the “first handheld mobile phone” since around 1973 and it hit the market in 1983. It was a battery and a phone all in one and operated on the “1G” analogue cellular phone network. The first phone he created (the DynaTAC) had just a 20 minute talk-time but, at 1.1kg in weight, he admitted that this wasn’t really a problem “because you couldn’t hold that phone up for that long”. Despite this, it was a major shift from the original car phones which needed about 12kg of kit in the boot.

The story of the mobile phone

The shift towards “2G” digital cellular networks didn’t really happen until the 90’s, with GSM here in Europe and CDMA in the USA. The larger “brick” phones started to shrink and, shown here in 1988 with Prince Charles, a new smaller phone made by Nils Martensson is demonstrated to the world..

Nils founded a company called Technophone Ltd, but it was then taken over by Nokia in 1991 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Is that it? Well, almost. We’re now finishing the era of 3G and pushing into 4G and beyond, but let’s wind back to 1922 for a moment because amazingly they were dabbling with mobile technology some 93 years ago.

Describing the clip below, Simon Atkins an Ex-Royal Signals officer, states..

The two ladies are using a small simple HF radio, probably a ‘Cat’s Whisker’ type. For it to work it needs to be earthed, which is why it’s connected to the fire hydrant. The antenna or aerial is the wire in the umbrella. On the receiving end the telephonist is using an HF radio and puts the microphone next to the record player. For the two ladies to hear she would be pressing the pressel switch.

So, if you didn’t mind carrying an umbrella and a big transmitter then earthing yourself to street furniture, you could indeed communicate (albeit with HF standard radio via an operator) with others….

If there’s anything you think I’ve missed here or something you feel we should include, do let me know.

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