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Martin Cooper: Father of the Cell Phone

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Whether or not you know his name, chances are Martin Cooper has played an important part in your life, especially if you’re one of the billions across the world keeping up in a shrinking, increasingly tech-centered world.

Cooper holds the unique and world-changing distinction of being the inventor of the cell phone—yes, that little gadget connecting you to work, friends, and family while playing the latest Top 40 hit is the revolutionary brainchild of this unassuming inventor. Though his official background is in electrical engineering, what he does best is refine and reinvent methods of communication through antenna technology and wireless networks.

A Chicago native who grew up in the 1930s and 40s, Cooper attended the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1950 and his master’s degree in 1957. Between degree programs he spent four years in the Navy working on destroyers and submarines before being recruited by Motorola in 1954 to develop a revolutionary line of portable products, including handheld police radios which were designed for the Chicago Police Department in 1967. Soon thereafter he graduated to a leadership position in the company as general manager of Motorola’s communications systems division.



When asked whether he minds being referred to as the “father of the cell phone,” Cooper self-effacingly replies, “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 trying to make it better.”

Believe it or not, Cooper’s inspiration for the cell phone was Captain Kirk’s communicator on Star Trek. Until that time, industry experts had envisioned telecommunications as being solidly centered on the location of phones, not the people using them. When Cooper successfully tested his cellular phone, a huge paradigm shift in telephone communications occurred toward individuals and away from locations or sites. This breakthrough phone call was placed on the streets of New York City on April 3, 1973, the day now commemorated as the birthdate of the modern cell phone.

“People want to talk to other people—not a house or an office or a car. Given a choice, people will demand the freedom to communicate wherever they are, unfettered by the infamous copper wire. It is that freedom we sought to vividly demonstrate in 1973,” Cooper says.

He also recalls, “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.”

And just who was the first person Cooper called with his portable cell phone? His chief rival, Joel Engel, who was at the time the head of research at competitor AT&T’s Bell Labs. He told him, “Joel, I’m calling you from a real cellular telephone. A portable handheld telephone.”

Cooper spent the next decade actively working to bring the cell phone to consumers worldwide. The first phone he had used was described as a “brick” weighing 30 ounces. In 1983 Motorola introduced the 16-ounce DynaTAC phone to the market, which had a price tag of more than $3,500 (the equivalent of a staggering $7,000 today). Cell phone users in the U.S. were few and far between at the time, and it wasn’t until 1990 that a full million subscribers were networked throughout the country. As of 2007 cellular phone users outnumber wireline subscribers across the world, with cell phones weighing as little as three ounces and costing, in some instances, as little as $20.

Currently, Cooper serves as founding CEO of ArrayComm Inc., a company he established in 1992 which is dedicated to advancing smart antenna technology and wireless networks through research and innovation. Its core technology increases the capacity and coverage of any cellular system, simultaneously decreasing costs and increasing reliability.

ArrayComm has also utilized its technology for Internet expansion, making the web more personally tailored through the implementation of the iBurst Personal Broadband System. This system is designed to provide users high-speed, mobile, and affordable access to the Internet.

“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. We will look back at 2003 as the beginning of the era when the Internet became truly untethered,” says Cooper.

Given the paramount significance of his achievements (it is admittedly difficult to overestimate the importance of the cell phone in the modern world), Cooper has been the recipient of a number of industry accolades, including the Wharton Infosys Business Transformation Award. The honor was bestowed upon him in 2003 in recognition of his fundamentally vital contributions to the field of communication.

Careful to make a distinction between business and technology, Cooper reveals, “I have a rule about business. There are no easy businesses in today’s financial world, and 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.”


Q. What do you do for fun?
A.
I like to be on a beach on occasion; I like to ski on occasion.

Q. What cell phone do you use today?
A.
I never really started to carry a cell phone until it was small enough so I could put it on my belt and not even feel it was there. I always have the smallest and lightest phone I can buy, and what I use now is a Motorola 60i.

Q. What’s wrong with cell phones today?
A.
Too much. The last thing the public is asking for is a phone that is also an MP3 player, a flash camera, and a voice recorder. Those [handsets] are so complex that it’s even hard for a techie to use them.

Q. As inventor of the personal mobile phone, are you rich beyond compare?
A.
I’m rich beyond all imagination in satisfaction and in happiness and in self-fulfillment. Not necessarily in dollars and cents.

 


On the net:ArrayComm
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 vision  wireless  industry  Illinois Institute of Technology  Bell Labs  gadgets  choices  projects  New York City  New York


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