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The father of the cellphone predicts we'll have devices embedded in our skin next

Martin Cooper with the fruits of his labor.
VALERIE MACON
/
AFP via Getty Images
Martin Cooper with the fruits of his labor.

Shockingly, Drake was not the first to make that hotline bling.

Back in the '70s, telecommunications were the new frontier for tech companies. This is how one executive made the call that cellphones would change human life forever.

Who is he? Martin Cooper — aka the father of the cellphone, and former head of Motorola's communications systems division — and the first person to ever make a call from a cellphone.

What's the big deal? In some abstract way, we can probably connect that fateful call of yesteryear with our crippling phone addictions of today.

  • Cooper had a vision for communication, and pushed for the cellphone while competitors placed their bets elsewhere. 
  • In fact, the push for a mobile phone was one bred from urgency. At the time, Motorola's competitor, Bell Labs, was focusing its efforts on the car phone. That concept didn't fly with Cooper. 
  • He felt that "a cellphone ought to be an extension of a person, it ought to be with a person all the time." 
  • So in 1972, he set out to create a mobile phone that could fit in your pocket. While the whole pocket thing was subjective (they called them brick phones for a reason!) by the next year, they had a functioning cellphone system.
  • On April 3, 1973, Cooper made the first call of many, and dialed up his counterpart at Motorola's competitor, Bell Labs. (Messy!) 

  • Want a deeper dive into technology? Listen to the Consider This episode on calls to pause AI developments.


    A contemporary copy of the original cell phone that engineer Martin Cooper used to make the first mobile call on April 3, 1973
    Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images
    /
    AFP via Getty Images
    A contemporary copy of the original cellphone that engineer Martin Cooper used to make the first mobile call on April 3, 1973.

    What are people saying?

    Cooper spoke with NPR (over Zoom!) about that inaugural call and how rapidly the world has changed since.

    On what he said in that first-ever cellphone chat:

    I said, "I'm calling you from a cellphone. A real cellphone. A personal, handheld, portable cellphone." You notice I was not averse to rubbing his nose in our achievement. 

    On overseeing a rapid evolution in technology:

    We knew back in 1973 that someday, everybody would have a cellphone, and we're almost there. Two-thirds of the people on Earth have one. So we had a joke that said that someday when you were born, you would be assigned a phone number. If you didn't answer the phone, you would die. We never imagined that there would be a thing called the internet. That didn't exist in 1973. Digital cameras did not exist in 1973. The large-scale integrated circuit did not exist in 1973. So there were breakthroughs that have happened that we just could not have imagined. 

    So, what now?

  • Cooper predicts that AI will continue the revolution in how we communicate: 
  • "The cellphone is going to become a part of you. Parts of the cellphone will be embedded under your skin. You won't have to charge a cellphone, because your body is a perfect charger. You ingest food, and you turn it into energy. So there are so many improvements yet to be made in a cellphone. And I really do believe that we are just at the beginning of the cellphone revolution." 
  • Anyone have any tips for getting my daily screen time down that don't include self-control or deleting TikTok? 
  • Learn More:

  • Virginia Norwood, a pioneer in satellite land imaging, dies at age 96
  • Google's 'Ghost Workers' are demanding to be seen by the tech giant
  • Tech leaders urge a pause in the 'out-of-control' artificial intelligence race
  • Kai McNamee contributed to this story. contributed to this story

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.
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