American engineer Martin Cooper (born 1928) is often dubbed the father of the mobile phone. In November of 1972, he and a team of associates at the Motorola Company began working on a prototype of the Dyna-Tac phone, and five months later Cooper stood on a Manhattan street and placed the world's first call from a mobile phone. “There were a lot of naysayers over the years,” Cooper admitted in an interview with Investor's Business Daily writer Patrick Seitz. “People would say, ‘Why are we spending all of this money? Are you sure this cellular thing will turn out to be something?’ ”
Cooper was born on December 26, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Arthur and Mary Cooper. He was a tinkerer from an early age, recalling in an interview with Seattle Times journalist Yukari Iwatani, “I'd been taking things apart and inventing things since I was a little kid …. I still have memories as a child trying to really understand how things work.” He graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1950, and from there enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves, serving on destroyers and a submarine. His first job was with the Teletype Corporation of Chicago, which made the units that provided remote communications services to media outlets.
Worked on New Police Radios
Cooper joined Motorola, Inc., of Schaumburg, Illinois, in 1954, and earned his master's degree in electrical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology three years later in 1957. At Motorola, he was assigned to the division that was working on the first portable handheld police radios, which were introduced in Chicago in 1967. By then he had advanced to the position of operations director, and over the next nine years he made his most significant contribution to the future of mobile communications while serving the company.
Car-based mobile phones had been in limited use in large U.S. cities since the 1930s. By the early 1970s, they were used with a communications system called the Mobile Telephone Service, which carried signals over the same VHF (very high frequency) that FM radio stations used. Calls were placed not by dialing telephone numbers, but by locking onto specific channels. The system was unreliable and prone to congestion in urban areas, where it was impossible for more than 24 channels to operate on a given network. Moreover, the phones cost between $2,000 and $4,000 and had to be installed in an automobile because of the power source and antenna that were both required for use; waiting lists for an available account—which usually only came up when a subscriber chose to disconnect the service—could be as long as three years. Cooper believed that car phones were impractical from a deeper standpoint, however. “Our basic dream was that people didn't want to talk to cars,” he told Iwatani, the Seattle Times writer. “They didn't want to talk to a desk or a wall (where phones were generally placed). They want to talk to other people.”
Motorola's main competitor was Bell Laboratories, the research division of American Telephone & Telegraph Company (later known as AT&T). At the time, AT&T had a monopoly on traditional (so-called “landline”) telephone service in the United States, and was working on a new form of mobile communication that it could offer its subscribers. An important technological breakthrough came with the idea that the phone's signal would be carried over a geographical area, passing from transmitter to transmitter in individual “cells” of territory. “AT&T announced they had a solution called a cellular phone for personal communications,” Cooper explained about the battle between the two in an Electronic Design interview in 2003. “It had two attributes that were totally abhorrent to us: One that AT&T would operate a new cellular service as a monopoly; the other that the solution was car telephones. We had to prove to the world that both of these attributes were not in the public interest.”
Motorola's legal team began working on a proposal to the Federal Communications Commission to win approval for private companies like itself to operate communications networks over radio frequencies, which would be a necessary step in entering the mobile-phone service market and prevent AT&T's continued monopoly. Motorola also needed to show the government agency that a working mobile phone was indeed feasible from a practical standpoint, despite AT&T's claims that car-based units were the future of communications. In November of 1972, Cooper and his team began working on a portable phone, and ran their first tests in Washington. The result was the Dyna-Tac, which the Motorola staffers dubbed “the shoe phone” for its design profile. It weighed 30 ounces, or nearly two pounds, and measured ten inches long, three inches deep, and oneand-a-half inches wide.
The public demonstration for the world's first mobile phone came on April 3, 1973, in New York City. Cooper and engineers at Motorola installed the first cellular transmitter atop the Burlington Consolidated Tower (later renamed the Alliance Capital Building) on Sixth Avenue. Prior to walking into a scheduled press conference at the New York Hilton, Cooper took out the Dyna-Tac prototype and pressed the off-hook button, which connected him to a base station. From there, he dialed into the landline system and, ignoring curious looks of passers-by, called his rival at Bell Labs, Joel Engel, and “told him: ‘Joel, I'm calling you from a “real” cellular telephone. A portable handheld telephone,’ ” Cooper recalled in an interview with BBC correspondent Maggie Shiels. Asked what Engel's response was years later, Cooper could not remember the exact words, but admitted to New York Times writer Ted Oehmke that Bell Labs was “a little bit annoyed. They thought it was impertinent for a company like Motorola to go after them.”
The New York Times duly ran an article the next day, on April 4, with the headline “Motorola Introduces Wire-Less Telephone.” The reporter assigned to cover the Motorola press conference, Gene Smith, related that journalists were allowed to make calls from the phone, and predicted that the network would probably be ready for subscribers by 1976. Monthly costs would be $60 to $100 a month, but could drop to $10 a month by the early 1990s, Smith reported. Of Cooper's device itself, the newspaper quoted him as saying that it “eliminates the phone cord. All information today goes on the wire, including dialing and hanging up the phone. Through the use of a few integrated circuits, chips, and devices, we are performing the functions of tens of thousands of parts in the normal phone system.”
Became Vice President
Cooper's Dyna-Tac appeared on the July 1973 cover of Popular Science magazine, and the technological breakthrough helped Motorola achieve its goal of winning FCC permission for private companies to operate a wireless communications network over radio frequencies. The achievement also boosted his profile within the company, and he was made a division manager at Motorola in 1977 and then vice president and corporate director for research and development a year later. In 1983, the same year that the first commercial cellular phone service began operation in the United States, Cooper left Motorola to found his own company, Cellular Business Systems, Inc. This Chicago-area software company handled billing for cellular phone service providers, and was sold to Cincinnati Bell in 1986.
In the earliest years of wireless communication phone service, Cooper and Motorola appeared to have lost their ideological battle with AT&T, as car phones dominated the market. Smaller, lightweight portable mobile phones did not make significant inroads with consumers until the early 1990s. He remained convinced of the practicality of his original concept, however. “A telephone number shouldn't represent a home or a car or a restaurant, but instead a person,” he explained to Peter Meade in America's Network in 1997. “That vision is not complete. That is why I'm still working.” He noted that avid users of mobile phones in Japan, for example, were canceling their residential landline phone service. “Why would anyone want any other phone but one with their own personal phone number? It's the dream of AT&T realized: When you're born, you are assigned a phone number—and if you don't answer, you're dead,” he told Meade.
Envisioned Wireless Internet
By then Cooper had served as chair and chief executive officer of another company, Cellular Pay Phone Inc., and in 1992 signed on with Arraycomm Inc., in Del Mar, California, as chair and chief executive officer. The firm was founded by two other inventors and was working on wireless Internet applications, which Cooper saw as the next breakthrough in mobile communications services. “Cellular was the forerunner to true wireless communications,” he told Oehmke in the New York Times in 2000. “And just as people got used to taking phones with them everywhere, the way people use the Internet is ultimately going to be wireless. With our technology, you will be able to open your notebook anywhere and log on to the Internet at a very high speed with relatively low cost … when people get used to logging on anywhere, well, that's going to be a revolution.”
Cooper is not a household name, but is well-known inside wireless technology circles. For years, he was often photographed with that Dyna-Tac prototype he had used to make the world's first mobile phone call back in 1973. Often asked if he was surprised at the ubiquity of the device for which he was granted U.S. Patent No. US3906166 for a “Radio telephone system” on October 17, 1973, he conceded that seeing scores of mobile-phone callers on that same Manhattan sidewalk 30 years later might have indeed seemed a bit far-fetched at the time, noting that even “in 1983 those first phones cost $3,500, which is the equivalent of $7,000 today,” he told Shiels, the BBC correspondent. “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.” He also admitted to a certain satisfaction that his original idea for a wireless telephone had caught on with the rest of the world. “Freedom is what cellular is all about,” he said in the same interview. “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.”
Cooper went on to win several more patents, and was still active in the wireless technology business in 2007. He had two children from his first marriage, and in 1991 he married Arlene Harris, a co-founder of Cellular Business Systems. An avid skier and fitness enthusiast, he claims to keep his mind active by completing New York Times crossword puzzles. He still gave press interviews—over a standard phone line, ironically—and admitted to Todd Wallack of the Houston Chronicle that “I am talking now on a land line. I get as frustrated as you do with wireless service. I get infuriated because I know what the technology is capable of.”
America's Network, March 1, 1997.
Business Week, June 19, 2000.
Electronic Design, October 20, 2003.
Electronic News, August 22, 1983.
Houston Chronicle, April 13, 2003.
Investor's Business Daily, September 27, 2005.
New York Times, April 4, 1973; June 23, 1985; January 6, 2000.
Seattle Times, April 7, 2003.
Telecommunications, August 1998.
Shiels, Maggie, “A Chat with the Man Behind Mobiles,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/2963619.stm (December 28, 2007).
"Cooper, Martin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. (September 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2506300048.html
"Cooper, Martin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2008. Retrieved September 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2506300048.html
Cooper, Martin (Du Pré)
MICHAEL KENNEDY and JOYCE BOURNE. "Cooper, Martin (Du Pré)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. 1996. Encyclopedia.com. (September 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O76-CooperMartinDuPr.html
MICHAEL KENNEDY and JOYCE BOURNE. "Cooper, Martin (Du Pré)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. 1996. Retrieved September 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O76-CooperMartinDuPr.html