The Man Who Made The Cell Phone

And why it’s not the ideal communication device

I was in an office park unit in Del Mar, California, preparing to photograph Martin Cooper, the inventor of the cell phone and the 44th person in my series of inventor portraits. I set up a corner of the reception area as a holding space for my equipment, and his assistant sat at the front desk where she watched me unpack gear and run cables through the room and down the hall to Martin’s lab. She was visibly annoyed at my intrusion in their space, and she kept asking me how long this was going to take. I don’t think she liked me being there.

If you do a Google search for images of Martin Cooper, you’ll find photo after photo of the most obvious picture: Martin pretending to talk on the original brick-like cell phone. I knew I would probably take a similar photo — how could I not? — but I was determined to get something different, too.

When I arrived, I scouted the space and found a delightful mess in his lab. There were boxes stuffed in shelves at odd angles, electronic components, screwdrivers, and so on, the kind of mess you can tell makes sense to someone who works there every day. I set up in this room for our first photo.

I love photos like this where you don’t even notice some of the little details at first. Like, is that a lava lamp behind the spindle of CD+Rs over his shoulder?

Then I rerouted the cables back through reception, enduring some frowns and heavy sighs from Martin’s assistant, and into Martin’s office to set up lights for more photos and a video interview. He had to get work done, so I let him work while I took some standalone photos of the original cell phone.

I thought it interesting that the buttons were arranged in two rows rather than the now-familiar three.

I also grabbed this quick shot of the phone in the foreground with Marty working in the background. I took it with my iPhone 5. Cell phone cameras have come a long way since then.

I asked Marty to define cell phones for me. I’ve seen car phones in movies from the 1950s. How are mobile phones like that different from cell phones?

Humphrey Bogart uses a car phone in “Sabrina” (1954)

He explained it pretty clearly:

The concept of cellular telephony is really very simple. The history of mobile communications is that you put an antenna in the middle of a city and cover the entire city. Unfortunately when you do that, every telephone conversation requires a complete radio channel, and there just aren't enough channels available. So you couldn't do that with many people. Cellular telephony does two things. It breaks the city up into a lot of small areas — which, being engineers, we had to come up with a new name, and we called them cells — so that each cell is its own radio station. Now you can use a radio frequency in one cell and then reuse that radio frequency elsewhere. The second concept of cellular is the ability to move from one cell to another having a continuous conversation. Those are the two concepts that make up cellular.

Makes sense!

Then we moved on to some portraits. This is one of my favorites, and it doesn’t show the cell phone at all:

I asked Martin what phone he uses. I thought that would be interesting to know. I was surprised to learn that he got a new phone every three months to always be on top of the latest technology. And he still thought cell phones have a long way to go:

The purpose of technology is to make your life better. Make your life easier, to improve it in some way. The most modern devices, most cell phones don't do that very well. In fact, they force us to become engineers, to learn a bunch of new things. We shouldn't have to do that.

Martin talking about cell phones

So I asked him what technology needs to be in place before we have his ideal device, and his answer feels particularly relevant this week as I’ve been watching reviews of the Apple Vision Pro, with its eye tracking and gestures:

I think the easiest way that we communicate today is by talking, and so I think that's going to be the first thing, and they're starting to make progress. Apple has Siri, Android has similar kinds of things, so I now when I want to go somewhere, I can tell my phone “Open Maps” and then tell it where I want to go, and it understands and it takes me there. So voice is the first one.

Gestures are going to become very, very important. And Microsoft has started to introduce that concepts, as well as Apple. Very simple things, using 1, 2, or 3 fingers. Swiping things. So that's another one. Gestures are going to be important.

There's already a lot of work on watching your eye movements. Your head movements. So that's another way that we communicate with each other. It's a natural way of communicating.

And of course the ultimate, and I don't think it's going to happen in my lifetime, maybe not yours either, is you ought to be able to think of something and have it happen.

Martin also told me the amusing story of the very first public cell phone call, which made use of two cell towers that had been set up in New York for demonstration to the press:

The first public cellular call was made in New York. I was walking down the street in New York with a reporter, and we wanted to demonstrate the phone, and I thought a dramatic thing to do was to call my counterpart at AT&T, Joel Engel, who was running the AT&T cellular program. They were really antagonists, if you think about it. They wanted to have a monopoly. We wanted to have competition. So I dial the phone and Joel answered the phone. And I said, “Hi, Joel. It's Marty Cooper.” He said, “Hi, Marty.” I said, “I'm calling you from a cell phone. But a real cell phone. A personal, handheld portable cell phone.” And there was silence at the other end of the line, and I suspect he was gritting his teeth, and to this day Joel doesn't remember that conversation. But I'm telling you that it really happened.

We finished the interview and I put away all the cables and equipment, to the delight of Martin’s assistant.

After we left his office, the plan was to go to his house for some additional photos. But his wife felt it wasn’t clean enough for guests to come over. So instead, we went for a walk on the beach to demonstrate the “mobile” part of mobile phones.

And of course, I did take a photo of Martin talking on that first cell phone:

After each inventor portrait session, I let the subject pick one image for a print if they want, as a thank you. So after I got back home and edited the photos, I emailed several to Martin and his assistant so they could see them. I got a call from his assistant saying how much they loved them and how she couldn’t tell from the mess I made that I actually knew what I was doing. I think that was a compliment?

A few years ago, I got an email from Martin. His memoir Cutting the Cord was about to be published and he wanted permission to use one of my photos as the author photo on the dust jacket. He sent me the picture he wanted to use.

I was happy to say yes, but I told him that the particular image he sent me was not actually one of the images I took! I just looked at the ebook so I don’t know for sure about the printed editions, but think the publisher still used that photo and misattributed it to me. Or maybe whoever did take it is also named David Friedman and everything worked out okay.

Either way, movie rights to the memoir were optioned by the same producer who made The Social Network. So maybe one day we’ll see Martin’s story up on the big screen. But for now, you can watch this video I made back then about Martin Cooper on your little screen (unless you got one of those Apple Vision Pros last week in which case you can watch it on a virtual screen the size of your house):

And that’s it for another newsletter! Until this week, Beehiiv didn’t make it obvious that you can comment on newsletters like you could over at the old place. But supposedly they just added an indicator that should take you to the comments section. I can’t see what that looks like until this goes out. Is it obvious enough? If not, you can go to the online version of this newsletter and find the comments at the bottom.

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See you next time!


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