The Cellphone Turns 40: Remembering Martin Cooper’s Historic Call

Four decades ago, Martin Cooper—inspired by Captain Kirk—made the first public call. By Sean Macaulay.

Eric Risberg/AP

On this day, April 3, in 1973, a man called Martin Cooper crossed Sixth Avenue clutching a telephonic gadget that would change history beyond all imagining. The device was the world’s first handheld cellphone, and Cooper had invited reporters to watch him make its first public call. Even sophisticated New Yorkers stopped and gaped. This new phone was not only cordless, it was small and light—just 10 inches long and a mere 2 1/2 pounds.

Cooper, who’s now 84 and still working in Silicon Valley, was a former Navy man and engineer who joined Motorola in 1952. He installed two-way car radios and worked on an early pager system for doctors, which required the whole building to be wired. More pivotally for the world’s 6 billion cellphone owners, he was invited by the Chicago police in the mid-1960s to improve their cumbersome “push-to-talk” car phones. Cooper came up with a clip-on microphone that officers could use within walking distance of the car “base.”

“That’s when I really made the discovery that is my mantra today,” said Cooper. “That people are fundamentally, inherently mobile, that these policemen were much, much more effective when they could carry their radios with them than when they were trapped in cars.”

Another key change was taking place in Chicago at that time. AT&T’s Bell Labs began to develop a cellular network of low-power radio transmitters that could “hand over” a caller from cell to cell without losing the connection. Its network, though, was intended only for in-car telephones.

Cooper was inspired to make a genuinely mobile cellphone after watching Captain Kirk’s gold flip-top “communicator” on Star Trek. In a fascinating oral history he gave to the Computer History Museum in 2008, Cooper remembered how he organized a competition among his designers for the best portable phone:

“We gave them two weeks, and after two weeks I took them all out to dinner and each guy stood up … and presented his version of the telephone and some of them were just beautiful. Some of them were actually suitable for a telephone today. Sliders, folders, just amazing … And we’re talking about 1972 … We ended up picking one that was not all that spectacular, because … even then, the more complicated you make something, the greater the chance it was going to break.”

Fittingly, Cooper’s famous first call was to Joel Engel, his rival at AT&T’s Bell Labs. And the rest really is history.