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Author: Martin Cooper
NAE member Martin Cooper is widely celebrated as the “father of the cell phone.” He was an inaugural member of the Wireless Hall of Fame (2000) and is a recipient of the IEEE Centennial Medal (1984), the Marconi Prize (2013), and the NAE’s Draper Prize (2013), among others.
In a special virtual event on February 3, 2021, he was interviewed by Guru Madhavan, Norman R. Augustine Senior Scholar and senior director of NAE programs. An edited version of the conversation follows.
GURU MADHAVAN (GM): It’s an honor to share this virtual stage with the wizard of the wireless, -Marty Cooper. Living through the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to Marty’s invention we find connectivity and meaning. I am tempted to compare Marty’s work, which has in a large part enabled the information revolution, to that of James Watt, whose engines powered the Industrial Revolution.
We are really honored to have you with us, Marty. Let’s start briefly with why and how you became an engineer.
MARTY COOPER: From my earliest memories, I knew I was going to be an engineer. As a child, whenever I saw a gadget, say an alarm clock, I took it apart—and of course was unsuccessful in putting it back together. But you can’t win everything. Even today I take things apart, and my track record has improved since the alarm clock!
I went to a technical high school where every semester they had me assigned to a different shop—wood shop, print shop, forge, foundry…. Having that practical experience turned out to be invaluable in my career.
GM: I enjoyed reading the advance copy of your recently published memoir, Cutting the Cord: The Cell Phone Has Transformed Humanity (Rosetta Books). There’s treasured history in it but there’s also philosophy, commerce, economics, and globalization. You’re tackling at least 10 or 15 different threads about the “brick” you originally invented. Could you take us through some historical aspects of the wireless communications industry, and touch on what was the thinking behind the engineering of mobility and portability as chief design attributes?
MR. COOPER: The essence of the creation of a portable phone was stimulated by the Bell System. Claude Shannon established the basis of data transmission and Bell Labs proposed a system where communications among large numbers of people could be achieved with a limited amount of radio spectrum without the hindrance of the copper wire. It was an excellent idea. The flaw in their proposal was that their solution was the car telephone as an extension to the wired network. We had been trapped in our homes or our offices by that copper wire, and we’re now going to be trapped in our cars? That didn’t make any sense to us at Motorola because we had already observed in our portable two-way radio business that a true portable device gives people the freedom to communicate everywhere, not just when they’re in a car. That freedom ended up being extraordinarily valuable. It allowed people to collaborate. And that understanding drove Motorola to take on Bell, the biggest company in the world by every measure at the time.
The Bell System, of course, was proposing that the wireless approach be a monopoly. They wanted to be the only provider. Had they prevailed, they would have built a system that would work for car telephones but not handheld phones. Their study even predicted that the worldwide demand would be a million car telephones. Fortunately, they did not prevail.
Motorola spent $100 million—which for a company of Motorola’s size was a ton of money—fighting the Bell System. And that was the genesis of the portable telephone vision. I decided that the only way we were going to really persuade people that this was the right way to go was to show them what a real portable phone looked like and let them hold it in their hands. I have one here. This is an exact model of the original phone. You can see it wasn’t exactly small.
The model that we built in 1973 was huge by modern standards, but it was “handheld.” And then, because in those primitive times there were no large-scale integrated circuits, the engineers had to put about a thousand parts into it. And all one could do was talk—the internet, the computer, and the digital camera did not exist. The phone ended up weighing about a kilo, 2½ pounds. A battery life for 25 minutes of talking was not a problem since holding up 2½ pounds for 25 minutes is not a very easy thing to do. That was the genesis of the portable phone.
Fortunately, the FCC made the right decisions. The United States ended up with a competitive industry, and from the beginning, cell systems were built to accommodate portables. Today, most of the people in the world use portable phones.
GM: One can imagine an individual lifting 2000 pounds and ending up in the Guinness Book of World Records, but you did so with your 2½-pound prototype.
These days, a phone is more than a phone. How do you look at the transformation into a smartphone culture, not merely as an engineer who laid the foundation for this work but also as a consumer yourself?
MR. COOPER: Well, the flaw in the Bell System thinking was to think that this was a phone. They had a vision of this thing as an extension of what they’d been doing for 100 years since Alexander Graham Bell. They didn’t realize the broader potential. The traditional landline phone was a device that people used to talk from one place to another. The portable phone was an entirely different concept allowing person-to-person communications. People had the freedom to be truly mobile. People are naturally mobile. The telephone wire was a constraint, and eliminating that constraint required portability.
But calling this a phone and using the word “cell” is a misfit—clearly a bunch of techies came up with that name, not marketing people. The Germans and Japanese and other countries have it right. In Japan and in Germany, they call this the “handy,” which is a lot more appropriate than a “cell” phone.
GM: I was born in India. There’s been so much written about how cell phones have transformed the economy of the subcontinent and many other emerging nations. Even the concept of nations “leapfrogging” has been made possible by your work, more than any other technology that I’m familiar with. How do you process this extraordinary growth?
MR. COOPER: Well, first, we could never have anticipated the idea of putting a supercomputer in a handheld device, because there weren’t even large-scale integrated circuits then. But it didn’t take a genius to figure out that when we gave people—whether they were police officers or airline people—when we gave them this portable, they could manage their resources better. They were more efficient. And once they had this device, they couldn’t run their businesses without it.
A United Nations study showed that over a billion people moved out of severe poverty in the past 20 years or so, mostly because the cell phone provided them with the resources to improve their productivity. That makes me very proud.
GM: Let’s talk about the day when you made the first cellular phone call.
MR. COOPER: Although that ended up being a historic moment, the only thing on my mind that day was Murphy’s law.
It was a demonstration day. I was scheduled to be on a TV broadcast the morning of April 3rd, 1973, and we got bumped for some other development. So, our PR people set up an interview with a local radio station, and I said, “You know, if we’re going to do that kind of interview, we’re going to do it out on the streets, moving around so we can show the freedom that you get from a portable.”
I met with this reporter outside the Hilton on 6th Avenue in New York. At that moment I wondered who I should call for the demo. And I reached in my back pocket and pulled out my phone book (as we did in the ancient, primitive times) and I looked up the number for Joel Engel, who was my counterpart in developing cellular technology at AT&T. I called him and, miraculously, Joel himself directly answered. I said, “Hi, Joel. It’s Marty Cooper. I’m calling you from a cell phone. A real cell phone. A personal, portable, handheld cell phone!” There was silence on the other end of the line. I think he got the message. To this day, Joel doesn’t recall that phone call and I guess I don’t blame him!
GM: Can you talk about the Motorola culture and leadership during that time?
MR. COOPER: Joining Motorola in 1954, after I got out of the Navy, was the luckiest thing in my life. Motorola’s founder, Paul Galvin, left a strong culture. His statement I have lived by is “Do not fear failure. Reach out.” Sure enough, I had my share of failures. His son Bob Galvin carried on that message and tolerated me! I didn’t fit into the standard corporate pattern, but I must have had compensatory attributes.
The most important thing I learned at Motorola was the idea of objectivity—removing your personality, your desires, from decision making and looking at things dispassionately. That’s the hardest thing for people to do. It’s so easy for an engineer to fall in love with something that he or she created and forget about the fact that the technology must make people’s lives better.
Without the people part, technology is just a curiosity. It doesn’t mean anything. People are what it’s all about.
GM: Let’s talk about the infrastructure around the phone, specifically the myth of spectrum scarcity.
MR. COOPER: When Marconi made his first radio transmissions, which were point-to-point transmissions around 1900, there was essentially one radio channel. And the capacity on that radio channel—I hope you find this amusing—was one bit every 6 seconds. We now flip literally billions of bits per second, and we have tens of thousands of radio channels. And we repeat that capacity geographically.
The interesting observation is that anytime anybody has come up with a new idea—broadcast radio, two-way radio, television, satellites, Wi-Fi—there’s always been enough spectrum. So how could you have a myth that spectrum is like beach prime property? that once you use it up, it’s gone?
It’s easy for engineers to fall in love with something they created and forget that the technology must make people’s lives better.
It’s easy for engineers to fall in love with something they created and forget that the technology must make people’s lives better.
We have managed with technology to increase the capacity. My observation, what’s informally called “Cooper’s law,” is that we have doubled the capacity of the radio spectrum for communications every 30 months or so for over a century. For the first 50 years, we increased the capacity a million times. You carry that on for another 50 years and it’s a trillion times. And it turns out all of that is done by technology. And we can see how we can do this for at least another 50 years. So how could anybody say that there is a limit to the capacity of the spectrum? And yet that is the basis of how the FCC allocates spectrum today. We’ve got to fix that.
GM: Marty, I now wish to turn our attention to your wife and fellow engineer, Arlene Harris, to explore her thoughts on simplicity and complexity in smart phones.
ARLENE HARRIS: Well, the beginning of my work on simplifying technology, some 20 or so years ago, came because the user experience that cell phones and computers delivered was beginning to overwhelm their users. The more options we have, the more tools we have, the more we have that can become unintegrated. The idea of a simple technology that can be used intuitively continues to escape the people who design products.
In the creation of a simple interface or a simple service, the issue is to eliminate the unnecessary. That’s what makes people’s lives better. And if you can start with that notion and create a platform for that, we are in much better shape. Otherwise, every year, it will be tougher and tougher for new technologies to be adopted. Cell phone development has focused on the attributes smaller, lighter, faster. We need to focus on simplicity, on customizing, personalizing, and reducing friction.
MR. COOPER: Arlene expresses these things very well. The essence of her genius is she has observational abilities that are amazing and troublesome at times, because she could look at anything and instantly find the flaws. She looks around at the world and sees a whole bunch of opportunities to fix things. Occasionally it applies to me, which I don’t care for very much, but when it comes to a technology, she is wonderful.
GM: Thank you, Arlene. Marty, let’s conclude by talking about your book. Anyone preparing a memoir must invariably engage in the act of reflection, reappraisal, and revision. As you wrote this book, what did you learn that possibly surprised you or led to a revised understanding of yourself?
MR. COOPER: Reflecting on Marty Cooper as a person, I am so different than I was 50 years ago, and 20 years ago, and 10 years ago. I have an open mind. Everybody that I talk to, it doesn’t matter whether I like the person or not, has something to teach me. The essence of my life is learning and thinking, having an idea that at least for me is original. These ideas have almost always been thought of by other people, but the thrill of my life is to come up with a new way of looking at something and thinking about it differently. In that regard, I’m like a sponge. I love to learn new things.
GM: Thank you, Marty for this insight, and importantly, for your book. It was our honor to talk with you.
Marty Cooper holds up an exact model of the original cell phone.
Marty Cooper demonstrating the new portable phone on 6th Avenue in New York, April 3, 1973.