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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His next target are lost calls, also known as drop outs. Atop his office building, ugly conventional cell phone antennas are disguised as flagpoles.

He's developing so-called smart antennas that can cut through all the competing noise in the radio environment to get your call through.

"And what they do is when we transmit, we send the information only to your phone," Cooper explained.

Asked if we'll reach a day when a cell phone is as perfect as a landline, Cooper said, "That's exactly right."

What hath Marty Cooper wrought? Let us go, for a moment, back to the future.

The cell's precursor, the car telephone, came in right after World War II.

"A tiny radio transmitter sends your voice out on the airwaves to the nearest central station, where regular telephone operators can connect you with any telephone on land or sea," one newsreel explained.

It was a world of wonders: if someone was sick, you could track down the doctor on the road. Remember: these were the quaint old days when doctors, at least in newsreels, made house calls.

Even then, it was clear that being connected would put everybody on a very short leash.

And when in the 1960s AT&T developed more sophisticated cellular antennas the phone giant still considered car phones the name of the game. But Cooper and his engineers at Motorola thought otherwise, and decided to elbow their way into the business.

"We really had a basic understanding that people are mobile. And it's personal telephones they wanted. It's handheld portables," Cooper remembered. "So there was a real conflict between this elephant, which was AT&T, and this fly that was Motorola. But we ended up winning."

On a chilly spring day, we took Cooper back to the spot where he made that first call: Sixth Avenue, outside the New York Hilton. For the record, the call went to Joel Engel, Cooper's rival at AT&T.

"I said 'Joel, this is Marty Cooper.' He says 'Hi.' 'I'm calling you from a cellular phone, but a real cellular phone, a hand-held portable cellular phone.' And there was silence on the end of the line," Cooper remembered.

He couldn't resist rubbing it in.