Cell Phone History (A Timeline of Mobile Phone Technology)

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Remember landline phones? Most people born in the last decade probably don’t. Cell phones have all but eliminated them from residential life. Despite the fact that landlines were rendered obsolete in only the last 2 decades, remember that mobile phone technology is still very young when compared to the “antiquated” landline home phone, which has been around since the mid-1800s. But this is an article about cell phone history, not landlines.

And the truth is that when mobile phones were first a thing that regular people could buy, they barely earned the title “mobile”. But let’s start by mentioning the precursors to what we call smartphones today.

Back In The Day

To learn of the first claim that a wireless device of any kind had been created, we go back to 1908. American professor Albert Jahnke, in conjunction with the Oakland Transcontinental Aerial Telephone and Power Company, released a statement saying that they had succeeded in developing a wireless telephone. In a short time, it was discovered that their invention wasn’t what they claimed it to be. They were sued for fraud but the charge was eventually dropped.

The next year on the timeline is 1918. In Germany, it was announced that a wireless telephone system was being tested by a national railroad system. The testing involved military trains originating from Berlin. A handful of years later, in 1924, this same group began public trials. Though they eventually succeeded in creating a working telephone network within their train system, it was not truly wireless as we define it today.

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Short-wave transmitting and receiving apparatus on a German locomotive circa 1935

The 1940s

But by the 1940s, many countries had developed hand-held radio transceivers for military use. Though these weren’t truly mobile phones in the purest modern sense, they were more like walkie-talkies which is most certainly the earliest example of what we would refer to as a mobile phone. They were very bulky, extremely heavy, and required a lot of power to function. And the primitive networks these transceivers utilized could support only a very limited number of simultaneous conversations.

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The SCR-536, aka the “handie-talkie”.

Car Phones Make Their Appearance

Fast forward less than a decade to the year 1946 and we encounter the first truly mobile telephone developed by Bell Labs. Surprisingly, they were built for automobiles. Later that same year, AT&T created a mobile phone service that could operate outside the vehicle. But it was certainly what we would call primitive. As you would expect, it was huge and the coverage area was very limited.

The 1950s

In 1956, Sweden produced the first vehicular mobile phone system that was fully automated. They called it the Mobiltelefonisystem A, or MTA for short. It was equipped with a rotary dial (the circular, rotating kind). And yes, it was big and heavy. Lots of relays and vacuum tubes lent to a weight of about 90 lbs. 8 years later, in 1962, Sweden improved on the MTA and released the MTB. This model swapped the rotary dial for a push-button alternative and was more reliable overall. But it was still big.

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The MTA Mobile Phone System. 1956. Sweden.

Other countries began producing versions of car phones in the 50s, as well. The USSR unveiled theirs in 1958 and the US in 1959.

Other Early Advances In Mobile Phone Technology

Beginning in 1957, a Russian engineer names Leonid Kupriyanovich started making waves with his efforts to make mobile phones smaller. It was reported that one of his models, which was very close to being a successful prototype, was the size of a human hand and weighed between 2-3 ounces.

The 1960s

In 1965, Bulgaria achieved a breakthrough by developing an automatic mobile phone with an innovative “base station” capable of serving 15 customers. The device was called Radioelektronika.

AT&T released the IMTS (Improved Mobile Telephone Service) in 1965. This was a watershed moment in cell phone history as the IMTS pioneered the process of utilizing multiple radio channels. People in a particular geographic area could now all make calls at the same time which was not possible before. This AT&T device also represented the first time that users didn’t have to have an operator place a call for them when using a mobile phone. It also had reduced weight and size compared to its predecessors.

There was one major issue with the IMTS, despite its many innovations. Upon its release, the demand was so high that even the increased capacity the device made possible was insufficient. State regulators signed an agreement with AT&T limiting the new service to 40,000 customers. This resulting in 30 minute wait times just to place a call.

Also in the late 60s, some independent telephone companies made significant progress in mobile phone technology by pairing VHF and UHF frequencies. These advancements improved upon the capacity of AT&T’s IMTS.

The 1970s

The Satellite Phone

In 1979, the first satellite phone was developed. It was used primarily on the high seas. The technology used in these early iterations of satellite phones hasn’t changed much, though today it’s used on land as much as on sea – anywhere people are out of reach. They still operate primarily in the same manner as they did in 1979.

Vintage satellite phone circa 1979

Handheld Cellphones Emerge

Before the 70s, all “mobile” telephones were installed in vehicles like trains and cars. They weren’t literally mobile in the way we use the term today. They were mobile in the sense that you could make or receive a call while in motion.

But in 1973, the first handheld mobile phone was produced by Motorola. And this changed everything.

The phone weighed over 2 lbs and was almost a foot long. It took 10 hours to charge and you could talk for only 30 minutes on a full battery.

A Motorola mobile phone from the mid-70s

Tokyo revealed an automatic analog cellular system in 1979; the first of its kind on the cell phone history timeline. It quickly spread through Japan and many Nordic countries by the early 80s.

The 1980s

North America finally deployed an analog cellular system of its own in 1983. Israel and Australia then followed in 1986 and 1987, respectively. As the technology was now being perfected faster than ever before, a standard of sorts began to take shape. It was called AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System). But even at this stage, cellphones were not yet available to the masses. The people who had personal cellphones were mostly wealthy or well-connected. And yes, they were still pretty large and heavy. Not to mention that AMPS was easily encrypted and prone to eavesdropping.

1G Is Launched

We’ve reached the point in the cell phone history timeline where the first “G” (generation) network came to be. The company Ameritech was the brains behind the rollout of what we now refer to as the 1G network in 1983. Though exciting, phones using the network still took ages to charge and still offered only about 30 minutes of talk time. As you would expect, demand for the system was incredibly high with an exhaustive waiting list which presented even more issues to be dealt with.

The 1990s

2G

In the 90s, when the 2G network was rolled out, there were two cellular systems going head-to-head. The American standard and the European standard. Europe called theirs GMS and the US’s was named CDMA. But there was one characteristic that both systems shared. They were no longer utilizing analog transmissions, using digital transmissions instead. 2G was what opened the firehose of mobile phone usage across the world. It finally made it feasible for individuals to own and operate their own, personal mobile phone with ease.

A Motorola cell phone circa 1992

One of the reasons 2G was such a big moment in mobile phone history is because with it came the advent of SMS, otherwise known as text messaging. SMS was actually first available only in Europe through their GSM network, but all digital networks soon boasted the groundbreaking feature.

By 1998, people could download media content right from their phone. Even though the only thing you could download at the time were simple ringtones, this was a fascinating development for all users.

1998 was the also the year where the very first mobile payments took place. Finland and Sweden were the pioneers in this field. The successful trial involved sending a payment to a vending machine for a can of Coke. In 1999, the Philippines succeeded in making a mobile payment that mimicked credit cards. Also in 1999, Japan launched the very first mobile internet service. Primitive as all of these features were at the time, this is where they all began.

2000-2004

In the year 2000, the first advertising on mobile phones was initiated. They were basic, SMS-based ads, but they were ads nonetheless.

Motorola Razr (2004)

3G

At this point in cell phone history, personal cell phones became more ubiquitous with each passing year, the demand for data grew incredibly fast. Fortunately, Japan unveiled 3G technology in 2001 which increased speeds by an average of 2 Mbps due mainly to a concept called packet switching.

At this point, competition for control of 3G space started heating up. The more frequencies a company owned, the better service they were capable of offering.

3G is really where the concept of media streaming became a reality. In these early days of streaming, radio streams were the most common with television content following slowly behind. Companies such as Disney and RealNetworks played a large role in the advent of streaming as we know it today.

Suddenly, in the mid-2000s, technological advancements came to a head and data transfer speeds took a huge leap. Speeds as fast as 14 Mbps became available in some areas. There wasn’t just 3G anymore. There was 3.5G, 3G+, and even turbo 3G, as they were called.

2005-2009

By 2007, cell phones began to change. Flip phones were already phasing out. Apple released the first iPhone that year. Though it wasn’t the first touch screen cell phone ever manufactured, it might as well have been. Traditional keypads didn’t last long after that.

The first iPhone (2007)

By the end of the 2000s, applications that used large amounts of bandwidth were becoming commonplace. This meant that if a new mobile network wasn’t devised soon, the 3G networks would most certainly be overwhelmed. It didn’t take long. In 2009, 4G was a reality. Scandinavia and the United States led the way in developing 4G networks.

Speeds were now 10x faster than 3G. This was in large part due to utilizing an all-IP network and eliminating circuit switching in the process. This was also the point in mobile phone history where WAN and LAN networks made their debut.

2010-Present Day

Smartphones

Today, feature phones (the name for non-smartphones) only occupy a small, niche market in the mobile phone industry. Smartphones are now the norm, with their fast broadband connection and multi-tech displays. Mobile apps can provide us with virtually any service and provide for us any piece of information we desire. There’s an app for that, as they say. A far cry from the heavy, bulky mobile phones of the 50s, 60s, and 70s (that weren’t truly mobile). Cell phone history has come a very long way.

Samsung Galaxy S10e (2020)

In 2020, there are lots of operating systems and network providers to choose from. Apple, Microsoft, Google, Samsung, and more all strive to create the best, most exciting phones they can.

5G

5G technology has already been developed. It’s here. Deploying the new network, however, hasn’t been easy. But we’re close. Very close. The difference between 5G and 4G is expected to be the starkest contrast of any subsequent networks up to this point. With its lightning-fast speeds, 5G is expected to make possible things that we can’t even imagine. As mobile technology continues to advance, who knows what the future will bring.

If you’d like to have a more detailed, in-depth explanation of each network generation – 1G up to 5G – click here.

Cell Phone History (A Timeline of Mobile Phone Technology) – Conclusion

To conclude, here are additional 5G-related articles, providing you with all the information you need about this exciting technology:

7 Reasons Why You Should Be Excited About 5G Cell Tower Networks

5G FAQs (3 Common Questions Answered)

5G FAQs (3 More Common Questions Answered)

How 5G Will Affect the Way We Use Our Devices

Comparing 5G Speeds To 4G Speeds: How Fast Is It, Really?

5G Concerns (9 Controversies Addressed)

Did 5G Cause COVID-19? (Shattering 3 5G Conspiracy Theories)

5G Explained: Beamforming & DSS (in Plain English)

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