History & Science FAQs
By Martin Cooper

Marty Cooper, father of the portable cellphone, has developed this extensive list of the most frequently asked questions he has encountered. We hope you find the answer you’re looking for.

Although many inventions are created accidentally, the cell phone was invented very deliberately and over a long period of time. The motivation for inventing the phone in 1973 was that the Bell System, which was the only provider of telephone service for most people (a monopoly) had invented a concept it called “cellular” communications. We at Motorola thought this was a very good idea, but then the Bell System suggested that what people needed was “car telephones”. We vigorously disputed that conclusion. We knew that people did not want to talk to cars, or to houses, or to offices; they want to talk to other people. To demonstrate this, we invented the first portable cellular telephone so that we could prove to the world that our idea of personal communications was correct and that personal communications was going to become even more important. We believed was that a telephone number should call a person rather than a location

Of course! There were many people involved in inventing that first telephone. It started with the people who created all the specialized parts that made the phone work. A crew of industrial design people at Motorola ran a contest to determine what the best design was for the appearance of the telephone. The engineers who put the parts together were very skilled and the best in the industry. There was a great deal of hard work by many people to make the invention of the cellular telephone a reality. I did have the idea and made it happen by pulling together all of Motorola’s wonderful people and technology.


From the time I had the idea to when we had a working cell phone took a little over three months. Before we even started, we had spent years inventing many of the parts of the phone that made it work. The dream of a portable phone had been in our minds for a long time before the first phone was invented. So, for example, when we needed a special antenna on the cell phone to meet the needs of the high frequencies that were involved, our people had been working on such an antenna for two years, and it was ready just when we needed it. The same is true for the integrated circuits and other parts that were needed for this telephone.

The design of the first cell phone was the result of a contest among 5 different industrial designers at Motorola (none of whom reported to me). I picked the simplest design (whose basic design survived for almost 15 years), the other designs were not unlike some of the most modern cell phone designs. The design I selected was tiny, but the engineers who built the electronics had to squeeze hundreds of parts into the phone so it grew 5 times bigger and much heavier.

It was a combination of the vision (people are mobile; communications for people must be wireless), the technology (integrated circuits, frequency synthesizers, antenna, packaging techniques, etc., all dedicated to making radios smaller, lighter, and with lower current drain), and the passion that drove us to go to battle with the Bell System, the largest company in the world.

They were amazed that anyone would have the temerity to challenge Bell Labs. They reluctantly admired our marketing ability in doing so, and pitied our little company, Motorola, who were bound to fail. The lesson for everyone: Don’t underestimated the little guy or girl.

The call that we made in New York City was the first public telephone call. We had tested the phone in the laboratory many, many times, and believed that it was going to work. Of course, we always have doubts when something very new is attempted, but the important thing is that we really believed in the basic idea. That idea is that people are fundamentally mobile and that communications has to happen without wires. It does not make sense for a person to be tied to a wall phone or to their desk if they want make a phone call. So the most important thing we did back in 1973 was to prove that a telephone number should not be a location like a house or a business but rather that telephone number should represent a person.

There are over eight billion cellular telephones in the world today; more phones than people. Our vision back in 1973 was that someday everybody would have their own personal telephone. On the other hand, when the first portable cellular telephones were sold in 1983, they cost $4,000. Not many people could afford these phones. We never would have predicted that in only 20 years or so that phones would be provided free to people if they only pay their monthly bill, as is the case today. The first telephone weighed 2 ½ pounds (40 oz.). The smallest modern phones weigh a tenth of that and are much, much smaller. We always believed that cell phones would become very small but there is no way we could have predicted that a cell phone would include a powerful computer, a camera, an MP3 player, games, and access to the internet.

The concept of distance has disappeared. There is no longer any difference between a “long distance” telephone call and one to the house next store. Thirty years ago, it could cost $10 or more to call Japan; today I make that phone call for a few pennies. The second important thing is that when you call your friends who have cellular phones, you expect a specific person to answer, not merely a location. This is a huge difference. It’s unusual today for most people to even use a wired phone, the wired phone is starting to disappear. Video calls are now common and short message communications like Twitter, Instagram Facebook and others are connecting people almost continuously. Because of this, we do things more efficiently. There are fewer poor people now than ever and we can afford more services and things than ever before. We have a long way to go before we eliminate poverty in all countries, but that’s going to happen, and the cell phone will help that to happen.

For every advancement in technology that affects people, there are always some negative consequences. Of course, it can be annoying to be so readily accessible. That’s why every cell phone has an on/off switch. The choice of whether we want to be accessible or not is yours; no one forces you to answer a cellular telephone call. As is true with every advance in technology, people must learn how to use the advancements properly. Some people may allow new technologies like free communications to change their lives in adverse ways, but with time, people will learn to take advantage of all benefits of unhindered communications, and society will be much better off. Communications today improves our productivity, makes us safer, help us learn new things, and even entertains us by allowing us to play games and access information. It’s hard to imagine why any of those things are not good.

Cell phones are going to move in two major directions. For personal voice communications you can expect a cell phone to get so small that you will be able to put a cell phone in your ear; and perhaps, in the not too distant future, cell phone will be embedded under your skin so that it is with you always and is powered by energy from your body; you won’t have to remember to charge your battery – ever. After all, who needs to dial if you can verbally tell your telephone to whom you want to speak and your phone has the intelligence to find that person. The other directions in which cellular telephony is moving will give us much more bandwidth so that we can hook up our computers to the internet but without being leashed to a wall or a desk while we are doing it. In the future, we’ll be able to use our computer wherever we are, but also to play games, transfer pictures, listen to music and many, many other things – all through the wonders of wireless technology. The cell phone will be used for health care and for education. Nobody has to be alone anymore.

An important wireless technology that will make cell phone more available and less costly is the idea of smart antennas. Smart antennas are making radio signals stronger and communication a lot less expensive. I’m working hard to make sure that everyone has cell phone service and can afford it.

I was in the U.S. Navy for 4 years as a submarine officer, spent a year in one company and then 29 years working for Motorola. Since 1982, I have been starting and running companies, all in the wireless communications business. I also wrote a book called “Cutting the Cord: How the Cell Phone has Transformed Humanity” That tells the story of the creation of the cell phone and what the future holds for us as the cell phone changes our lives..

I was in the Korean conflict on a destroyer (U.S.S. Cony) where, among others, I received a presidential unit citation medal from president Singhman Rhee of Korea. I went to submarine school in New London, graduated high enough in my class that I was rewarded with service in Hawaii on the U.S.S. Tang, one of the most modern subs at that time.

I left Motorola in 1983 to start, with two partners (one of whom is my wife, Arlene Harris, who is known as “The First Lady of Wireless”), a new company that built software and billing systems for the new cellular industry that began in October of 1983. The company was very successful and was sold in 1986. At that time my wife and I started some other businesses and continue to do that today.

The university I attended is the Illinois Institute of Technology located in Chicago. I received a bachelor’s degree in 1950, a master’s degree in 1957, and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2004. IIT is a fine engineering school that also has schools of architecture, design, and law. I serve on IIT’s Board of Trustees. I attended Lawson Elementary School and Crane Technical High school, both in Chicago.

I have been granted ten other patents besides the cellular phone. They are all in the wireless field, although one has to do with using fuel cells to operate a cellular phone. My wife, Arlene Harris, is also an inventor and a very successful entrepreneur.

Of course, my parents (whom I didn’t fully appreciate until I was in my twenties) were inspirational. Mother was a dynamo. Two high school teachers remain in my memory, Mr. Kinney (home room and wood shop) and Miss Corrigan (English). Mr. Kinney was demanding (a perfectionist) but was very kind beneath a tough veneer. Miss Corrigan appreciated and encouraged my voracious reading.

It’s good to let your mind run free, to think of new ideas, new ways of doing things, to daydream. But an inventor needs a foundation of science, of engineering, of education to make these dreams come true. An inventor needs imagination AND practical knowledge. An engineer or inventor NEVER stops learning. There is always a new idea, a new technology, a new way of doing things that becomes part of a persons tool kit and that makes life interesting.

Mother – Mary. Father – Arthur. Brother – Will. My daughter, Lias lives near Chicago and my son Scott leves near Washington D.C. I have four grandchildren (3 girls and 1 boy) and a great Granddaughter.

I was born in Chicago on December 26, 1928

I try to always have the latest cell phone and use several routinely. My primary desire used to be to own the smallest and lightest handset. Now I use an iPhone that is couple to my iWatch that I use to help me stay fit. My vision is that each person is different from every other person and should be able to have a phone that meets his or her needs. But I try every new and interesting phone that is introduced so, by the time you read this, I may have a different one.