The Cell Phone: Marty Cooper's Big Idea

Father of the Cell Phone Talks about the Past and Future of Cellular Communication

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Editor's note: Though Martin Cooper and his team at Motorola built and demonstrated the first cell phone, there were many fathers of the technology involved in transmitting calls. Prominent among them: Amos Joel, Jr. of AT&T/Bell Labs, who created the system that switches signals from one cell tower to another - the basic component that lets callers talk while moving. Mr. Joel was inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008 for his development of the switching concept for cellular phones.

There are seven billion people on the planet, and nearly five billion cell phones - meaning most of the Earth's population is connected for sound, for picture, and for heaven only knows what else.

The cell phone has brought us a world without end of talking, twittering, texting, even of sexting. If you don't know what that is, ask any high school kid.

It is all a result of Marty Cooper's big idea. And he looks at it all with pride, amusement and some dismay. And with good reason: he is the father of the cell phone. He built the first one 37 years ago. It ushered in a technological and social revolution which he believes is far from over. He made the first public cell phone call on the sidewalks of New York, in 1973.

Full Segment: Marty Cooper's Big Idea
Web Extra: The First Cell Phone Call
Web Extra: Cheaper Cell Phone Service
Web Extra: Evolution of the Cell Phone
Web Extra: No More Dropped Calls

"This is a time when there were no cordless phones. And certainly no cell phones. And here's this guy talking as he was walking along. And I stepped into the street and nearly got creamed by a New York taxicab. So talk about being prescient and seeing a picture of the future," Cooper told "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer.

It's a future - of non-stop connection of apps galore, iPhones and Droids, Blackberrys and Blueteeth - or is it Bluetooths?

Marty Cooper checks out the latest at the wireless industry's annual convention in Las Vegas, a huge convergence where geeks meet gizmos.

And unlike some of us of a certain age, he understands all of it.

Asked if he twitters, Cooper said, "I signed up for Twitter about six months ago, did nothing and I had 17 followers. So now I'm actually twittering. My latest twitter is, 'The secret of successful aging is to have good genes and to show a lot of respect for the genes.'"

Asked if he thinks he's the oldest twitterer in America, Cooper said, "I don't want to be the oldest anything in America. Sorry about that."

But you'll have to look hard to find anyone older on the slopes at Vail, his favorite getaway. Cooper was born in Chicago on the eve of the Great Depression. He's 81, an age, for many, when the most strenuous exercise of the day is getting in and out of bed.

"His tennis and his skiing are better than they've ever been. I have a hard time keeping up with him. And I'm almost 20 years younger," his wife Arlene Harris told Safer.

With his wife, another veteran of the mobile phone business, Cooper is still in the game, awaiting the next big thing in wireless communication. He's convinced that the cell phone, at 37, is still in its infancy.

"Technology has to be invisible. Transparent. Just simple. A modern cell phone in general has an instruction book that's bigger and heavier than the cell phone. That's not right," Cooper said.

Call it the complexity or confusion factor.

Cooper argues that cell phones designed to do everything - take pictures, play music and videos, surf the Web - don't do any of them really well. He thinks the buyers should be dictating exactly what they want.

"The consumer is king. The consumer ought to make the decisions. And not, certainly not the engineer," Cooper said. "Engineers tend to get enchanted by the technology itself."

So it seems only natural that the latest gadget developed by Cooper and his wife is a retro cell phone called the "Jitterbug." It's a basic phone - there's no camera, no music. Any idiot can operate it.

It sounds simple enough: if you can hear a dial tone on the Jitterbug, you can make a call. "If there's no dial tone you can't," Cooper explained.