Somewhere in either Chicago, Baltimore or Washington, someone plunked down $3,995 to buy the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, the first handheld cellphone, on March 13, 1984 — 30 years ago today.
We don’t know who that first cellphone buyer was. At the time, the occasion didn’t register as historically auspicious. After all, in 1984, the terms “cellphone” and “mobile phone” didn’t refer to handheld phones; those terms referred to car phones, which had been around since the mid-1940s. What was celebrated at the time was the kick-off consumer cellular call — made to the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell — six months earlier.
A handheld portable phone was considered a gimmick, a “look what I got!” rich man’s toy with dubious utility. Measuring 13 x 1.75 x 3.5 inches and weighing 28 ounces, the 8000X was so big and heavy, even its creators had nicknamed it “The Brick.” Plus, you could only use it for a half an hour before the battery gave out. Who would pay a quarter of the average salary in 1984 — more than $9,000 in 2014 dollars — to carry around such a useless load, especially since payphones were everywhere and only cost a dime to use?
The lack of commemoration of that first portable phone sale is understandable. What has turned out to be the most ubiquitous gadget in history started life as a publicity stunt, prompted by
Ma Bell’s monopoly
The cellphone may have had one of the longest gestation periods in tech history. A memo outlining the idea of a hexagonal honeycomb of adjoining antenna sites was laid out in a memo by AT&T researcher Douglas H. Ring in December 1947. At that time and until 1983, car phones transceived via a single citywide antenna that, with limited frequencies, kept the number of subscribers low.
In the mid-1960s, AT&T engineers Joel Engel and Richard Frenkiel perfected cellular technology to allow frequency re-use and call hand-off so you wouldn’t lose your call as you moved from one cell to another. These advances geometrically increased the number of potential car phone users.
Once cellular was feasible, AT&T, which already controlled all landline telephone service in the U.S., applied to the FCC for a similar monopoly over the new wireless network.
It was this potential cellular monopoly that threw Motorola, who sold two-thirds of all car phones, into a tizzy. If Ma Bell was awarded a cellular monopoly, cellular phone equipment would be made by her Western Electric subsidiary — and no one else.
Facing corporate oblivion, Motorola executive Marty Cooper had a brainstorm: Let’s prove to the FCC that a cellular monopoly would inhibit hardware innovation. What would Motorola’s innovation be? A rival cellular network with a handheld phone at its center.
Cooper told his engineers to drop everything. On Dec. 3, 1972, a dozen or so Motorola engineers began the seemingly impossible task of compacting the components inside a trunk-sized car phone transceiver cabinet and roof antenna array so the whole phone could be held in your hand.
Five hectic months later, on April 3, 1973, Motorola hosted a grandiose event at New York’s Hilton Hotel to present two hand-built DynaTAC handheld phones to an enchanted press. Since there was no actual cellular network built yet, these first two DynaTACs were actually fancy 900 MHz cordless phones. (Here are the full details of the complete whirlwind DynaTAC development process.)
Whether or not Motorola’s dog-and-pony show actually affected FCC’s decision to not award AT&T a cellular monopoly is debatable. Bottom line: AT&T didn’t get it.
The DynaTAC development interregnum
Fortunately for Motorola, it took nearly 10 years for the FCC to get its cellular regulatory and licensing act together.
“The first [phones] we made were a research product,” recalls Rudy Krolopp, Motorola’s legendary design master. “The DynaTAC wasn’t designed to be manufactured and mass produced. Plus, the FCC was giving us all kinds of problems, so to design something we could manufacture sucked up 10 years. We were very busy.”
The most visible design change was re-arranging the two vertical rows of number buttons on the original DynaTAC to the more familiar three-by-four grid. Inside the phone, primary engineer Don Linder oversaw the development of custom integrated circuits and microprocessors — which were still a new product in the late 1970s — as well as evolving antenna designs to better penetrate buildings and account for height changes during a call, all of which had to comply to ever-changing FCC spectrum specifications.
Krolopp recalls the DynaTAC going through around eight different iterations. “Each time we had a problem and solved it, we had to change the design.”
In all, Motorola spent an estimated $100 million to develop the 8000X — with no idea if the public would ever even want one.
The cellular era begins
The FCC gave carriers the final cellular development go-ahead in March 1982. Ameritech, the Chicago-area Baby Bell, was already in the midst of its 18-month AMPS cellular network construction job — 12 antenna sites to service the entire Chicagoland area.
On March 6, 1983, Motorola officially unveiled the DynaTAC 8000X, but it would be seven months before the FCC gave the phone its blessing. On October 12, 1983, Ameritech initiated the first commercial cellular service in the U.S. Service cost $50 a month plus 40 cents a minute from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 24 cents a minute off-peak. Two months later, Cellular One launched its Motorola-designed DynaTAC network in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
Until the 8000X went on sale, the only cellphones you could buy were car phones, priced at around $2,500.
“We thought sales [of the DynaTAC 8000X] would be modest,” admitted Paul Gudonis, Ameritech’s VP of marketing and sales and now CEO of medical device maker Myomo. “Our market research on price point indicated buyers would be a select group of entrepreneurs, doctors, real estate agents, construction company owners and large company executives.”
Ameritech sold 12,000 cellular phones that first year, around 10% of which were the DynaTAC 8000X. That may not sound like much, but it was more than anyone expected.
“It was the cool factor,” Gudonis reasons. “I remember walking to a neighbor’s house, and he asked ‘Is that a cordless phone?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but the antenna is 10 miles away.'”
From Motorola’s point-of-view, the 8000X was a runaway success. “We didn’t design them for teenagers — well, unless it was a teenager with $4,000,” Krolopp chuckles. “But we couldn’t build them fast enough. Businesses started taking them on and it became something else, a part of business — not a convenience, but a necessity. We didn’t expect those kinds of volumes.”
Ironically, what had been the primary cellphone product — car phones — have completely disappeared. They’ve been replaced by the decedents of the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, an unlikely device born out of panic.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.