Conversations with Engineering Pioneers: Marty Cooper

Thu, June 13, 2024

On February 1, 2024, NAE President John Anderson interviewed engineering pioneer, NAE member, and Draper Prize winner Marty Cooper, known for his contributions to Electrical Engineering and his pioneering work in the development of the modern cell phone. The full interview can be viewed as part of the NAE’s “Conversations with Engineering Pioneers” video series found on the NAE YouTube channel. Below are excerpts from Cooper's interview, edited for clarity and grammar.

The important thing about engineers is that they make people’s lives better. Technology without people as part of the equation is just curiosity. The important thing about engineering is it makes the lives of people improved in one way or another.

The First Cell Phone Call:

On April 3rd, 1973, Martin Cooper, an engineer at Motorola, placed the first-ever cell phone call from midtown Manhattan using a handheld portable cell phone. He made history.

The real stimulus for making that phone call in 1973 was the desire to make the world understand that they were ready for personal communications, for having a device that was a part of the extension of you that made you reachable everywhere.

We met in front of the New York Hilton on 6th Avenue. We’re strolling along and I was explaining how this telephone works and, of course, you have to demonstrate a functional device. I decided on the spur of the moment, I really didn’t plan it, to call Joel Engel who was my counterpart at the Bell System. I reached in my pocket and took out my phone book. This will give you an idea of what the technology was like in 1973, called Joel's Office. Amazingly enough, Joel answered the phone and I said, “Hi, Joel, this is Marty Cooper.” He said, “Hi Marty.” I said, “Joel, I'm calling you on a cell phone. On a real cell phone, a personal, handheld, portable cellphone.” Silence on the other end of it, I thought I could hear his teeth gritting. To this day, Joel does not remember that phone call, and John, I don't blame him.

How AI Will Transform the Cell Phone Experience:

Since the inaugural call, the capabilities of cell phones have expanded tremendously. As the journey towards personalized user experiences progresses, Cooper believes that AI will be the next milestone on this path.

The cell phone now embraces a whole bunch of things that didn’t even exist in 1973 like the digital camera or texting. The most important change is that the cell phone is becoming an extension of the person.

The future is very obvious at this moment. The cell phone is already starting to incorporate artificial intelligence. At some point in the very near future, certainly within the next 5 to 10 years, everybody will have their own personal artificial intelligence as part of their cell phone. They won't have to look for an app. The AI will analyze your behavior and when it comes to specific applications, it will either create an application or find one for you and you won't even have to think about it. It's going to be there to serve you to make your life more efficient.

Advice for Today’s Engineers

Young engineers should get passionate about what they're doing. If you're that passionate about what your life is, or whether it's engineering or any other thing, go do something else. The experience of doing something that is part of your life, that's exciting, that gives you the satisfaction of accomplishment is an experience everybody should have.

But the most important thing for engineers is to remember that it's the people part of it that's hard. The engineering part, you'll get to learn that in school. You can get experience on how to solve engineering problems, but the people part is hard because you have to put your mind into the mind of the other person, that can be very difficult.

To view more interviews with engineering pioneers, check out all of the NAE’s “Conversations with Engineering Pioneers” video series on the NAE YouTube channel.