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Loose in the foothills: How your cell phone came to be

Loose in the foothills: How your cell phone came to be

First call was made in 1946; early, bulky devices cost nearly $4,000

Loose in the foothills: How your cell phone came to be
Once this cell tower near Sunrise Drive is assembled, few realize it's not a saguaro cactus. Advances have allowed many other cell transmitters to be placed so they are difficult to discern.

The subject of this column - cell phones - is a departure from my typical fare of personal experiences and local history. I am belatedly discovering the power of today's cell phones, and when I remembered that my uncle was involved in their development, I couldn't resist my history-researcher impulses in putting this story together.

Did you know your cell phone is really a very sophisticated and versatile two-way radio?

Mobile radio development started in the 1920s in Europe and the United States for use in vehicles such as taxis, police cruisers and ambulances.

During World War II, Motorola developed a backpacked Walkie-Talkie and a hand-held, battery-powered, two-way radio (about the size of a man's forearm) for the U.S. military.

The first mobile telephone call was made by AT&T in 1946. By 1948, wireless telephone service was available in almost 100 U.S. cities and highway corridors. But throughout the phone call on these early devices, a mobile phone had to stay within range (up to about 20 miles) of a single high-power transmitter on a tall central tower.

At that time there was no way to continue the call if the phone moved from one coverage area to the next.

Besides this geographical limitation, the number of callers who could use the system at the same time was severely limited by the number of available frequencies (or channels).

Long path to cell phones

In an internal memo for AT&T's Bell Laboratories in 1947, Douglas Ring (my uncle), outlined a new mobile telephone concept.

The system would be comprised of multiple low-power transmitters spread throughout a city (up to two miles apart) in a hexagonal grid (the term "cell" did not come into common use until almost 20 years later).

There would be automatic call handoff from one hexagon to another and reuse of frequencies within a city, greatly increasing the number of simultaneous callers.

Unfortunately, the technology to accomplish this revolution didn't exist.

Effective implementation of the cellular concept did not come until the 1970s, after Richard Frenkiel and Joel Engel of Bell Labs applied improved computers and electronics to make it work. Ironically, the first cell phone call was made in 1973 by Motorola engineer Martin Cooper, who called rival Engel to announce his success.

By the late 1970s and early '80s, First Generation (1G) commercial cellular networks began to appear, first in Japan, then Europe, followed by the U.S.

Illinois Bell, formed in Chicago from an FCC-licensed AT&T subsidiary, opened the first cellular system in the U.S. in 1983.

The world's first commercial hand-held cellular phone was the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X. It was more than a foot tall, weighed 2 pounds, offered just a half-hour of talk time for every 10-hour charge and sold for $3,995.

In the 1990s, Second Generation (2G) mobile phone systems were offered, replacing analog with digital transmissions, thereby increasing speed, flexibility and capacity. Text messaging and access to media content such as ring tones and news headlines were now available.

Smarter Cell phones

Cell phones were evolving, too. In 1992, IBM developed the first "smartphone," combining a computer with a speaker, microphone, touchscreen keypad, display screen, battery, transmitter and antenna.

Bellsouth released the smartphone to the public in 1993. Besides being a mobile phone, it also contained a calendar, address book, world clock, calculator, note pad, e-mail, fax and games.

Due to better batteries and more efficient electronics, a trend started from the cumbersome "brick" phones toward smaller, hand-held devices. Costs dropped as the number of users jumped from hundreds to millions of people.

The early 2000s saw the development of Third Generation (3G) cellular systems, characterized by high-speed Internet access. For the first time, streaming of radio and television to handsets became possible.

As 2011 begins, we see the emergence of Fourth Generation (4G) systems, driven by the growth of mobile broadband services such as electronic readers. Speed improvements up to 10-fold over existing 3G technologies are anticipated.

Cell phone transmitter antennas, many no larger than stereo speakers, can be mounted in church steeples, on trees and flagpoles and on top of tall buildings.

Residents might recall that to avoid the sight of ugly antennas in the Catalina Foothills, cell phone providers started putting them inside fake saguaros.

Tremendous capability

Today's cell phones fit in the palm of your hand, weigh only a few ounces, and do everything but slice bread. Your phone can even take you to an online marketplace where you can shop for new apps (applications) among an unbelievable 100,000-plus choices.

Cell phones are big business! We're barraged with advertising for an almost overwhelming number of choices with cute names such as Bold, Captivate, Droid, Epic, Evo, Fascinate, iPhone, Touch and Vibrant.

In case you were wondering, you can still call someone on today's cell phones, but last December's Consumer Reports rating for voice quality on almost all phones was only "fair."

My cell-phone-pioneer uncle, Douglas Ring, lived until 2000. I don't know what he thought of the amazing development and expansion of his idea.

Lately, Pat has given me every opportunity to explore each new evolutionary step of the cell phone, as she does. But I am totally behind the times. I keep thinking if I make the wrong move I'll be beamed up to the Starship Enterprise.

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Sources: "What is a Cellular Telephone?" definition from; "History of Mobile Phones" and "Smartphone" from Wikipedia; "Cellular Telephone Basics" from; 1947 Bell Labs memo by Douglas H. Ring; Arizona Daily Star; Consumer Reports.

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