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Father Of The Cellphone 'Unleashed' World's Callers From Copper Wires

Martin Cooper holds a Motorola DynaTAC, a 1973 prototype of the first hand-held cellular telephone, in San Francisco in 2003. Cooper made the world's first public call from a cellphone in 1973. (AP)

They called it "the brick." And Martin Cooper says it really did look like one: 8 inches high, an inch and a half wide, 4 inches deep, and weighing 2 1/2 pounds.

In other words, the world's first hand-held cellphone, the Motorola DynaTAC, weighed the equivalent of about eight iPhones. (Try jamming that into a pocket.)

"The battery life was only 20 minutes," says Cooper, a former vice president at Motorola who has been called the "father of the cellphone." "But that was not a problem because you couldn't hold that heavy thing up for more than 20 minutes."

The Motorola DynaTAC made its debut on the streets of New York in 1973, when Cooper made the world's first public cellphone call and forever changed the way we stay in touch with each other.

Cooper says it all began with a dream he and his colleagues at Motorola shared. "That dream was that everyone someday would be free to talk wherever they were [and] would be unleashed from the copper wires that tied them to the network," says Cooper, who still develops new technologies in San Diego.

As part of a new tech segment on All Things Considered, Cooper shared some memories from his moment of innovation:

On the FCC announcement that inspired Motorola

"[The FCC was] about to decide whether [Motorola competitor] AT&T would have a monopoly, and if AT&T had that monopoly, they were going to have cellular phones. But you'd be trapped in your car now instead of in your home or office. And at that moment, I decide that we were going to prove that the world was ready for hand-held, portable telephones, so that people would have the freedom to be anywhere."

On breaking barriers to create the first cellphone

"First of all, there were no large-scale integrated circuits, so we had to make that phone with thousands of individual parts. The frequency band the phone was in had never been used before, so we had to invent new devices, a new antenna. And furthermore, we had to come up with a form factor that could be held in someone's hand and that would look somewhat like a telephone."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, a moment of innovation. Today, we look back at the birth of a tool that has changed the way we stay in touch with each other.

DR. MARTIN COOPER: My name is Martin Cooper. Forty years ago, I conceived of the world's first handheld cellular telephone and a few months later, had the privilege of making the world's first public cellular call in the streets of New York.

For years, my colleagues and I at Motorola had a dream. And that dream was that everyone someday would be free to talk wherever they were, would be unleashed from the copper wires that tied them to the network. And then the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, announced that they were about to make a decision.

They were about to decide whether AT&T would have a monopoly. And if AT&T had that monopoly, they were going to have cellular phones, but you'd be trapped in your car now instead of in your home or office. And at that moment, I decided that we were going to prove that the world is ready for handheld portable telephones so that people would have the freedom to be anywhere.

We had to break a number of barriers in order to create that first phone. And first of all, there were no large-scale integrated circuits. So we had to make that phone with thousands of individual parts. And the frequency band that the phone was in had never been used before, so we had to invent new devices, a new antenna. And furthermore, we had to come up with a form factor that could be held in someone's hand and that would look somewhat like a telephone.

We call that first phone the brick. And it really looked like a brick. It was about eight inches high, an inch and a half wide, four inches deep, weighed two-and-a-half pounds. The battery life was only 20 minutes, but that was not a problem because you couldn't hold that heavy things up for more than 20 minutes.

BLOCK: Martin Cooper on developing the first cell phone. He continues to develop new technologies in San Diego.

Do you think you've got a big tech idea to change the world? Let us know by entering NPR's Big Idea video contest. It is limited to those ages 13 to 25. You can find details at npr.org/bigidea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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