Exactly 75 years ago today, a driver in St. Louis, Missouri, grabbed the handset from under the dashboard of his car and managed to make a call on a landline phone from elsewhere. We do not know exactly what was said, but we do know that on June 17, 1946, the world’s first mobile telephone call was made.
The technology had been developed in the previous decade by Bell Labs and Western Electric, subsidiaries of US telecom giant AT&T.
They had mainly conceived mobile calling for motorists, as is also apparent from this promotional film by Bell from the 1940s:
For example, via mobile phone truck drivers could keep in touch with head office, and journalists as quickly as possible breaking news pass it on to their colleagues.
In the beginning, that took a lot of space and energy, writes technology magazine Today’s Engineer: the telephone system weighed about 40 kilos and took up most of the luggage space. When the phone rang, it demanded so much power that the headlights went out.
It cost also a small fortune: 15 dollars subscription costs per month, converted to the current exchange rate about 175 euros. Plus about 35 cents per call (now more than 4 euros). In 1948 there were about 5,000 American users, making about 30,000 calls per week. Only a few users in each city could call mobile at the same time, the rest had to wait their turn.
In 1973 it really became mobile
Still, it is debatable whether you can really see this as the beginning of mobile telephony, says analyst and mobile phone expert Tim Wijkman of Telecompaper. “It was actually a form of radio, you already had it in army vehicles at that time. In principle, it could also be listened to, for everyone who had the equipment for it.” In the beginning you couldn’t simultaneously talk on the car phone, you had to talk or listen – just like with a walkie-talkie.
With the real start of mobile telephony, Wijkman rather thinks of the spring day in 1973 (April 3, to be precise) when Motorola project leader Marty Cooper made a teasing phone call from a sidewalk in New York to the major competitors of Bell Labs, who were also developing consumer mobile phones.
Cooper reminisces about that moment:
Wijkman: “That was really the first moment when you handheld device could call any other number, even without anyone listening in.”
Mobile phone in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, mobile telephony really took off in the 1980s, says Wijkman, when the car telephone (ATF) was introduced. “You needed a very strong transmitter in your car, because initially you had to make contact with only three transmitters, which you had to connect to the fixed telephone network. One in the southern, central and northern Netherlands.” Still, it was quite similar to the mobile telephony we know today, says Wijkman: both speakers could talk at the same time and the signal could not simply be eavesdropped on by a handy other user.
The increasingly popular car telephone, with tens of thousands of subscribers at one point, laid the foundation for the GSM network in the Netherlands, from 1994. From that moment on, the Dutch could make real mobile calls via one of the initially two available networks: KPN and Libertel. later renamed Vodafone.