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c. 1970s-1980s

The monster mobile phones of the ’70s and ’80s

A Motorola executive made the first handheld cell phone call in 1973. The recipient? One of his rivals at Bell Labs.

Hard to believe we thought this was a convenience.
Photo by Arthur Pomerantz/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images

Before 1973, if you wanted to make a phone call while roving around, you had two choices — either you got yourself a pair of tin cans tied together with a taut length of string, or you drove a car with a telephone built in. But all that changed on April 3rd of that year, when Martin Cooper, a Motorola executive, made the first handheld cell phone call. The guy he rang was his rival at Bell Labs.

Cooper’s phone weighed in at just below 2.5 lbs. Its battery allowed a half-hour of use, and then, 10 hours of recharging later, it would be ready for a chat again. It would be another six years before the launch of the first — 1G — cellular network, and then only in the center of Tokyo. By 1984, the network had expanded sufficiently to cover the whole of Japan.

More 1G networks emerged and took hold across the world throughout the 1980s, including, in 1983, the United States . That same year saw the launch of Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X handset, developed at a cost of $100 million. The price tag? For you, $3,995. And there was a waiting list.

It looked like a brick, and a brick is what people called it.  Yet, massive though it might seem to modern eyes, in 1983 it was a portable miracle that ushered in a new era.

A man using a mobile telephone in an automobile.
PhotoQuest / Getty Images
The portable radio-telephone was a precursor to the mobile phone. It worked by dialing into telephone systems. Here, a model displays a set at the “Communications Today, Tomorrow and the Future” exhibition at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, London.
Stacey / Fox Photos / Getty Images
Jeanne Bauer walks with a DynaTAC on 6th Avenue in New York, accompanied by John Mitchell, the Motorola engineer behind the phone.
Arthur Pomerantz/New York Post Archives / NYP Holdings, Inc / Getty Images
Mitchell with his phone on the streets of New York. He helped develop the design for the first mobile phone.
Bettmann / Getty
An early mobile phone used by a reporter, Kensington, London
Kypros / Getty Images
British actress Suzanne Danielle sharing a joke with two policemen while they examine one of the then-newly legal mobile phones in the United Kingdom.
Keystone / Getty Images
Don Johnson as Detective James “Sonny” Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas as Detective Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs—and a mobile phone.
NBCU Photo / Getty Images
A model poses with a phone at the launch of the Cellnet cellular radio system mobile phone service in London.
PA Images / Getty Images
Tom Selleck, playing private investigator Thomas Magnum, makes a mobile phone call from the beach in the TV series “Magnum PI.”
Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images
An archetypal ’80s man
John Downing / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
A young businessman with a brief case goes over figures on a giant old cell phone.
Ron Watts / Corbis / Getty Images
The phones were slimmer, if not still big, by the early ’90s.
Barbara Alper / Getty Images

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