Martin Cooper, who turns 82 on December 26th, is an electrical engineer – having gained his Master’s degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1957. He began work with Motorola in 1954, and it was during his tenure there, in 1973, that he conceived the first cellular phone. He then spent the next decade working to bring it to market.
Cooper’s inspiration for undertaking the project was the Star Trek television series, in which a small, hand-held ”communicator” device was used very much in the manner of a portable phone. Once Cooper had successfully tested his phone prototype, there was an instant shift in thinking among telecommunications gurus, who had for years said that telephoning would depend on the phone’s location, rather than the caller. At the time, so-called “land lines” and telephone booths were the only means of placing calls, so Cooper recalled with some amusement, in an interview he gave to EngineeringCrossing, the public’s initial reaction to his walking down the street with a portable telephone:
As I walked down the street while talking on the phone, sophisticated New Yorkers gaped at the sight of someone actually moving around while making a phone call. Remember that in 1973 there weren’t cordless telephones, let alone cellular phones. I made numerous calls, including one where I crossed the street while talking to a New York radio reporter – probably one of the more dangerous things I have ever done in my life.
The original phone weighed a gargantuan 30 ounces, and was referred to as the “Brick.” In 1983, Motorola introduced the DynaTAC phone, which was about half as heavy, with a price tag of more than $3,500. Cellular phone users were few and far between up until about 1990, when the million-subscriber mark was hit.
Cooper says that the project to put a phone together took a little over three months, and he says he wasn’t alone. A crew of industrial designers and engineers built upon Cooper’s concept. In fact, Cooper says there was a contest among five different designers, after which he picked the “simplest” one. He modestly asserts his only contribution was to think of the original idea and to “pull all of Motorola’s wonderful resources to make all of this happen.”
Cooper and his colleagues’ drive to take on AT&T was a prime motivator
during the project. He said that at the time, their prime competitor had invented a concept called “cellular communications,” but that they saw a future for this technology only in cars. Motorola, he asserts, vigorously disputed that notion.
Cooper left Motorola during 1983 to create a new company that built software and billing systems for the cellular industry. After selling that firm in 1986, he set upon creating his current venture, ArrayComm (begun in 1992), which is focusing on such concepts as “smart antennas” and faster broadband technology that will deliver the internet to portable users faster and more cheaply. This he began with his wife, Arlene Harris (also a high-tech entrepreneur), and engineers from Stanford University. Starting in 2003, ArrayComm developed a broadband wireless system called iBurst, which has been used successfully in various parts of Australia. And in terms of sheer creative output, ArrayComm’s efforts have been prodigious – with over 420 patents and applications for patents in its name. Cooper insists the increased speed and efficiency of modern computers have enabled their antennas to deliver wireless access at a dramatically reduced cost. This has permitted them to serve millions of wireless subscribers in the Far East.
With nearly four decades of success in the telecommunications industry, Cooper’s guiding philosophy is to look to its bright future:
It’s very exciting to be a part of a movement toward making broadband available to people with the same freedom to be anywhere that they have for voice communications today. People rely heavily on the Internet for their work, entertainment, and communication, but they need to be unleashed.
But for all his present work in developing this technology, arguably Cooper’s greatest single achievement remains the development of the original portable phone, which, he asserts, did not occur by accident, but was instead the product of a very methodical and well-planned approach designed to fulfill a basic and fundamental human need – to maintain telephone contact while mobile.