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Doctor Cellphone

Nate Orenstam
Thursday, December 20, 2007

Related News:

Can You Hear Me Now?

Mr. CellphoneThirty years ago, Dr. Martin Cooper, a project manager with Motorola, and his team of engineers invented the first portable cellular phone, beating Bell Labs in the process.  Dr. Cooper led the charge bringing the cellular phone to market in a process that would take another ten years.  Cooper had a long and distinguished career of 29 years at Motorola and holds eight patents in the area of cellular communications and three in the area of small munitions.  Dr. Cooper spoke to us from San Melvino Di Burpo, home of his latest company, AnnoyComm, about the history of cell phones and his rivalry with Bell Labs.

Q. Tell us about that first cellular phone call.  Is it true you called a competitor?

This is a story that's been going around for many years.  He wasn't really a competitor, per se.  More of a rival.  It was really a small industry back then and everyone knew everyone else.  One of the guys over at Bell Labs, Joel Engel, well, we were from the same town growing up.  And he used to tease me a lot.  Called me names, you know.  Engel, well he was the captain of the football team, and I was, well, I was this skinny little kid building wireless kits from scrounged parts, that sort of thing.  I'm sure he never meant it seriously.  And, of course, that was a long time ago.  But you know how it is when you're young.  So, as I said, we had developed a bit of a rivalry over the years, and we figured we had trumped Bell Labs when we were able to demonstrate the first cellular phone. We were going to absolutely relish the victory. 

Q. What was that first cell phone like?

The first portable we publicly demonstrated was the Dino-Tec.  It weighed over 2 pounds, had 30 minutes of talk time and took over a year to recharge between calls.  That's one of the reasons it took so long to commercialize.  We only got in a dozen or so tests before we brought it to market.  The early cell phones were very primitive.  They didn't have a lot of the advanced features people take for granted today like automatic misdial, call dropping, voice deactivation, echo mode, perma-lock.  Those were some of the key patents I put in place while at Motorola over the years. 

In the early days, we thought cell phones would be a big hit with executives and the like, but it took a while. When we finally got the charge time down to ten or twelve hours, it began to take off.  A lot of early adopters were in the, ah, import and export business, meat packing, trade unions, that sort of thing.  Not necessarily the most savory characters and not very forgiving of early technology.  They threatened to send a few of the phones to the bottom of the Hudson River tied to the technician's ankles, but otherwise they were good sports. They liked the idea that they could make calls while on the move.  And of course, it was nice that the calls couldn't be traced anywhere.  We didn't get around to creating a billing system for another few years.  I guess I wasn't that well organized back then. 

Q. But wasn't it Bell Labs that invented the cellular network?

Bell labs certainly deserved the credit for inventing the idea of a cell network.  This was done back in 1947, long before Engel was there, by splitting up radio spectrum into geographic regions known as cells.  They had been using it for police radios, that sort of thing.  But Engel never understood the potential of a portable device.  He was fixated on the idea of car phones.  And I thought why be stuck in a car if you can create something that's really portable?  Our early prototypes were very heavy though.  We began by taking the car phones and stripping out the car.  So some of the early prototypes weighed five, six hundred pounds.  But they were pretty responsive.  We had modeled them after the bumper cars at Coney Island.  You could speak for hours as long as the wire antenna thing was still touching the grid. 

One of the key discoveries was our ability to eliminate the car battery.  That cut the weight down considerably.  And then we eliminated the transmission.  I guess there was some confusion in the early specs about what that meant.  But by spring 1973, we had it figured out and gotten the device down to a couple of pounds. 

Q. So I guess you really did trump Bell labs then.

At the time, "the labs," as we called them, were a very revered institution. When I was in college, I remember thinking, if I could get in at the labs, then I'd have it made.  For a lot of us in engineering, this was the dream job, you know?  And that bastard Engel, well, he got into Bell Labs instead of me.  There was really only a few slots for interns when I was in college, and somehow Engel conned his way in and worked his way up to become research director.  So, as I said, we had kind of a friendly rivalry going.  You know, he'd stolen my work in college, you see, and so I wanted a way to get back at him.  Show him that I wasn't just "Farty McCooper" as he used to call me.  I thought I could teach Engel a lesson or two with a real cellular phone.  

Q. Where was the demonstration?

We had a press conference scheduled in New York that day, at the Manhattan Hilton.  We'd been prepping all morning and things weren't going very well.  We couldn't get any signal at all.  Of course, we didn't realize that's normal in Manhattan.  To be honest, I'd started drinking pretty heavily; I thought we were going to have to call the whole thing off and I'd get canned.  Then it turned out I'd forgotten to turn on the base station.  Well, that was a relief, I can tell you.  So the guys walked me outside to get some fresh air and black coffee.  I realized I had the phone with me, so I decided to call Engel up.  I dialed his number, and I said something like, "Guess who this is, you sorry sonofabitch," that was kind of a friendly joke we had between the two of us.  The connection was good, I could hear him on the other end saying "It's him again" or something.  Motorola and Bell were competing a lot in those days, sort of our own version of the space race, to see who could incorporate celluar technology in a practical manner. Bell had developed the cellular technology, but like a lot of things under Engel it just went nowhere.  I mean, I can't say I was surprised.  Engel was probably filching his work from someone, as usual. 

I had been working at Motorola for nearly twenty years.  I'd finally been promoted to a project manager and then I found out that Engel was now the research director at Bell.  This guy wouldn't have even passed physics if it weren't for me.  And here he is running a research lab with a budget a thousand times larger than we could spend at Motorola.  You have to remember, back then, Bell was the phone company.  They were a government regulated monopoly.  So if we got ahead of them, we wanted to have our moment of glory, sort of rub it in, you know?

So every few minutes I'd call up Engel and I'd say "Can you hear me now?"  That really frosted him, you can be sure.  Then I called him from the men's room.  Hands free, you know what I mean?  "Can you hear me know?"  I drove him crazy with that line.  The press conference went off without a hitch and we got a lot of mileage out of the fact that our first call was to Bell Labs.  It made for a good story.

Q. So what was next on the agenda for Moto--

And then, after the press conference was over, we still had some battery life left on the phone.  We were in the Hilton Bar drinking some tiki drinks and I think he probably knew it was me, but the risk of him going to the police, well they were pretty low.  So I called him up again and I said something like, "Joel, you bastard, guess who this is?  You remember me, don't you?  Said I'd never amount to much.  Well get a load of this," I'd say, and hold the phone under the table while I let out a real stinker."  Then I'd tease him a bit more, ask him where he thought I was.  I'd say something like, "your daughter looked really nice in her blue school uniform today, shame if anything bad happened to her" that type of thing.  I thought it would be kind of funny to let him know I was on a cell phone and now I had control of the situation.  We had a few pranks like that.  And he threatened to trace the call, but what good would that have done?  The phone was cellular, so there was no way to trace it anywhere.  I laughed.  I told him to go ahead, but if he did anything, I'd be able to see him. We had a big laugh about that.

Q. You threatened his family?

Oh, no, nothing like that.  We were colleagues in the same field.  I mean, sure, he was a big time director at Bell and here I was low man on the totem pole at Motorola, freezing my ass off doing field trials in North Dakota.  But I never threatened him.  It was really more of a prank.  We used to do this regularly.  I called in two dozen pizza deliveries to him one time.  That was when his father, old man Engel, was put to rest.  Just when the pizza delivery drivers all arrived at the funeral home, I called him there, they had to page him of course, and I did the "Can you hear me now?" routine.  It was great gag.  He had a bit of a breakdown at that point and left Bell Labs.  He'd put his daughters into private school and I think they had adopted another name.  But I got him good.  I had a good reputation as a prankster back then.

Q. I can't believe you did that.

Look, the industry was very competitive back then, and we had to do everything we could to get an advantage in the market place.  Sometimes we played a little rough, but it was all meant in good fun.  I never meant any of these things personally, it was just a way to get ahead in the market place.  Even when I started dating his wife, that was just a professional tactic I used in order to help Motorola. 

Q. You dated his wife?

Sure.  If you wanted to get ahead back then, you had to do what the big bosses said, sometimes even before they said it.  Galvin always used to say "screw Bell Labs," so I thought, yeah, why not?  That really put Engel over the edge.  I think he eventually lost it.  By then the government was ready to break up the phone company and I was breaking up his marriage.  I thought it was kind of fitting.  I called him up and I played the tapes for him and I think he knew what was going on.  After that, Bell wasn't very competitive in the cellular industry, not for a long time. 

Q. So how did Motorola resp--

Those bastards fired me after 29 years and stiffed me my pension.  They never proved a thing.  I was very careful about covering my tracks.  As I said, it's a tough industry and you gotta watch your back, you know what I'm saying?  

Q. Ok, that concludes our inter--

What are you looking at me like that for?  You think you can talk to me like that?  I invented this damn industry and I'm not done with you yet!  Get back here!  I know where you live, you fink!

About the author
Nate Orenstam is a world class Java programmer and a contributor to the J2ME specification.

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