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Last Updated: Monday, 21 April, 2003, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
A chat with the man behind mobiles
By Maggie Shiels
In Silicon Valley

Marty and the original mobile his team designed
Martin re-enacts that first call
BBC News Online in conversation with the telecommunications pioneer who made the first public call on a mobile phone.

It's not a moniker he particularly likes, but 74-year-old Martin Cooper is the father of the mobile phone. And it's all down to an event that took place on a pavement in midtown Manhattan on 3 April 30 years ago.

With the traffic whizzing by and New Yorkers bustling past, Marty stuck a kilo weight of plastic - housing all manner of wires and circuits - to his ear and started talking into it, becoming the first person to ever place a public call on a handheld cellular telephone.

BBC New Online tracked down this pioneer in the wireless industry at his day job in California's Silicon Valley. Marty is the chairman, CEO and co-founder of ArrayComm, which makes software to help mobile phone carriers squeeze more calls on a network.

BBC NEWS ONLINE: Tell us what inspired that vision of a personal handheld phone.

MARTY: The time was the late 1960s. There was one telephone company in the US, one in Britain and one in Japan and so forth. In our case it was AT&T and they were the largest company in the world and they had invented this thing called cellular. Their invention was car telephones. Can you imagine? We believed people didn't want to talk to cars and that people wanted to talk to other people and the only way we at Motorola, this little company, could prove this to the world was to actually show we could build a cellular telephone, a personal telephone. Something that would represent an individual so you could assign a number not to a place, not to a desk, not to a home but to a person.

BBC: What about that first call on the Manhattan sidewalk - who did you call and what did you say?

MARTY: (with a chuckle) Who do you think I called? I called my counterpart at Bell Labs, Joel Engel, and told him: "Joel, I'm calling you from a 'real' cellular telephone. A portable handheld telephone."

BBC: How did that feel beating the competition to the main prize? Did you literally punch the air?

MARTY: Of course. When you are a competitive entity like we were, it's one of the great satisfactions in life.

Original mobile phone
The original phone he used
BBC: Looking back, wouldn't you agree that that first phone you invented looks like something out of Noah's Ark?

MARTY: It did. Between 1973, when we demonstrated that phone, and 1983, when the first commercial service started, we actually built five models. Each one was successively smaller and by 1983 we were down from one kg to 16 oz. The one I carry with me today weighs 3 oz.

BBC: Did you really think your invention would become as popular and as ubiquitous as it has, with millions the world over using them?

MARTY: I have to confess that that would have been a stretch at the time and in 1983 those first phones cost $3,500, which is the equivalent of $7,000 today. But we did envision that some day the phone would be so small that you could hang it on your ear or even have it embedded under your skin.

BBC: Are you amazed when you see so many people walking down the street talking into your invention?

MARTY: (his face beams with obvious pride) Wireless is freedom. It's about being unleashed from the telephone cord and having the ability to be virtually anywhere when you want to be. That freedom is what cellular is all about. It pleases me no end to have had some small impact on people's lives because these phones do make people's lives better. They promote productivity, they make people more comfortable, they make them feel safe and all of those things. In the sense I had a small contribution there makes me feel very good.

BBC: Do you mind being referred to as the father of the cell phone?

MARTY: Even though I conceived of it, it really took teamwork and literally hundreds of people ended up creating the vision of what cellular is today, which by the way is not complete. We are still working on it and still trying to make it better.

BBC: So do the crystal ball gazing thing and tell us how you see phone technology progressing in the future.

MARTY: The future is really about being disconnected in every way and my company ArrayComm is working on what we think the future is, which is having the internet available wherever you are.

BBC: How easy or difficult is it to get to that next step?

MARTY: I have a rule about business. There are no easy businesses and in today's financial world, telecommunications is a very difficult business. But we are making progress and we have a company established in Australia and later this year there will be this new internet service.

Marty and his phone of choice today
I never really started to carry a cellular phone until it was small enough so I could put it on my belt and not even feel it was there
Martin Cooper
BBC: Why aren't you sitting on a beach listening to the surf? What drives you to keep working?

MARTY: What else is there in life but to accomplish things and to do things? Sure I like to be on a beach on occasion, I like to ski on occasion, but as long as I have the ability to make a contribution, I am going to keep going.

BBC: What phone do you use today and are you a slave to it?

MARTY: I never really started to carry a cellular phone until it was small enough so I could put it on my belt and not even feel it was there. Now I have a phone like that, I find I can't live without it. I always have the smallest and lightest phone I can buy and what I use now is a Motorola 60i.

BBC: As the inventor of the personal mobile phone, are you rich beyond compare?

MARTY: (breaks into a broad smile and chuckles) I'm rich beyond all imagination in satisfaction and in happiness and in self-fulfilment.

BBC: But not necessarily in dollars and cents.

MARTY: (still smiling) Not necessarily.

Send us your comments on this story:

I first had a mobile phone in 1994, when my daughter started having epileptic fits, and I was out of the office and could not be reached. Since then, I've been through analogue and digital phones, each one getting smaller all the time. Then they were a status symbol of sorts, now even Grandma has one (and knows how to use it). Haven't times changed?
Norman Allen, UK

I'm interested to hear a 74-year-old describe his ideal phone as "the smallest and lightest phone I can buy". I'm not the only person I know who won't upgrade to newer phones because they are getting so ridiculously small I can't properly use the keypad or see the screen. What amazes me is how the mobile companies won't build bigger ones for those of us with sausage fingers and dodgy eyesight. I continue to scour the second-hand shops to find a larger one that's usable.
Andrew Denny, UK

On behalf of my girlfriend and I, thank you. Your invention helped save her when she was attacked one year ago to this day by a group of men. Without it she may not be here.
Gary Saffron, UK

Thanks to this man for giving me the freedom and getting out of my office, the only thing is the office comes with me. At least there is an on/off button!
Viv, UK

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, which is no less true in the case of the mobile phone. Thanks for a new culture of sudden noise, unwanted exposure to private or otherwise banal conversations, and relentless silly chatting.
Tara, US

It's a wonderful thing when one of my three teenagers is late coming home just to call up and find they are safe and sound but held up for some silly reason. You and your team have saved thousands of parents from needless worrying.
Rowena, Portugal

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