There’s a lot we take for granted these days, but the ability to talk to anybody in our life, at any time, must be close to the top of the list. Many of us don’t remember a time before cell phones. But these days, 97% of Americans own cell phones, and 85% of them own smartphones. By 2025, the people of Earth will own 18.22 billion mobile devices, a substantial number of which will be smartphones.
How did we get to the point where cell phones are essentially required for daily life and earning a living? What’s the history of cell phones? Let’s see where this technology came from and how we got here.
Crash Course in Phone History
To understand where the cell phone came from, we need to know where and how the concept of telephony itself came about and how new innovations took it mobile. Here’s a quick crash course in phone technology before we get into the specifics of modern cellular networks:
1874 – 1963
- 1874: Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson discover the basic principles of telephony.
- 1877: The first commercial telephone network comes online in the U.S.
- 1894: Oliver Lodge successfully demonstrates that wireless communication is possible at a distance of 150 yards. Many historians consider this the true advent of cell phone history.
- 1915: The first transcontinental phone line is completed. For all intents and purposes, everybody in the U.S. is now reachable by telephone.
- 1920s: Train operators in Germany begin rolling out wireless telephones for passengers to use, essentially ushering in the “wireless model.”
- 1946: The first commercial mobile communication network is established using radio to link objects and vehicles to the network.
- 1963: The touch-tone telephone replaces the rotary phone.
1971 – 2009
- 1971: Intel introduces the world’s first single-chip microprocessor. This was instrumental in shrinking switching hardware and telephones themselves.
- 1973: Motorola introduces the first mobile telephone that can fit in the palm of the hand. In April 1973, Motorola’s Martin Cooper called his rival at Bell Labs on the first operational cell phone.
- 1983: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approves the first cellular telephone for commercial purposes. It was developed, once again, by Martin Cooper.
- 1993: IBM releases Simon, widely touted as the precursor to the iPhone. The Simon retailed for $899 at the time.
- 1994: The FCC assigns the first frequency range for use by mobile cellular telephones.
- 1997: Wi-Fi becomes a recognized standard and a new tool for cell phones to use.
- 1999: RIM introduces the Blackberry, which would be the de facto business smartphone for several years.
- 2007: Apple introduces the iPhone, which brought mobile web surfing to the masses.
- 2009: Motorola reveals the first Android-based smartphone, called Droid.
For the last several years, major technology companies have been in constant competition to develop faster, lighter, and more appealing smartphones. This hardware is inevitably paired with robust software ecosystems, like that provided by Apple and Google.
Today, citizens send more than 200 million text messages in America alone. A reported 83% of smartphone users take pictures with their devices; 60% listen to music; 46% play games; and 32% exchange videos. And this is just the start of what modern cell phones can do.
Which Technologies Paved the Way for Modern Cell Phones?
Cell phones aren’t just one technology – they contain multiple components requiring several disciplines to perfect. Getting these technologies right, one at a time, made modern telephony possible. Here are some of the primary technologies that needed to come of age before they could find their way into cell phones:
- Metal-oxide semiconductors: Patented in 1925, the metal-oxide-semiconductor (MOS) enables the amplification or switching of electronic signals within a handheld device using very little power.
- Large-scale integration (LSI): By the mid-1970s, metal-oxide semiconductors had paved the way for large-scale integration, which involves the placement of thousands of individual transistors per computer chip. 1974 saw the first case of using more than 10,000 transistors on a single integrated circuit.
- Cellular analog networking: The first commercially feasible analog cellular network was built in Japan and came online in 1979.
- Cellular digital networking: What many people refer to as the “wireless revolution” kicked off in the 1990s. Again, metal-oxide semiconductors were instrumental. MOS technology brought about the first truly digital cellular network – 2G – in 1991.
Where Did the Other Technologies in Cell Phones Come From?
Although the latest iPhone models eschew the SIM card and SIM tray, the development of SIM cards in Germany in 1991 made modern cellular networking possible.
In 2010, the iPhone 4 became the first smartphone to use the newly redesigned micro-SIM to save space. iPhone 5 was the first smartphone to use the further reduced-in-size nano-SIM in 2012.
IBM’s Simon – introduced in 1991 – was the first cell phone with a touchscreen. Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, after acquiring FingerWorks, with the intention of creating the “smartest” touchscreen ever.
It was Sharp that first integrated digital cameras into cell phones. That was in 2000. Now, every smartphone on the market has at least one camera. Today, some flagship smartphones have camera sensors capable of capturing detail at more than 100 megapixels.
GPS has origins in the Space Race of the 1960s and the Department of Defense. A company called Benefon was the first to launch a commercial GPS-compatible cell phone in 1999. It led to the introduction of additional GPS-enabled phones in the following years. Qualcomm released assisted GPS tech in 2004, which combined cell signals with GPS to further improve location-finding accuracy.
Cell phones didn’t have LTE modems until 2011, which caused a sea change in smartphone speed and capability. Samsung’s Galaxy was the first smartphone to include one; the HTC ThunderBolt followed in 2013.
The History of Cell Phones Is Still Being Written
It seems like the pace of innovation in the cell phone market has slowed in recent years, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t exciting developments on the horizon. We’re still writing the history of cell phones.
Mobile carriers and smartphone makers are eyeing satellites as the next mobile network. Additionally, form factors keep changing; Samsung is all-in on foldable phones, and the rumor mill says Apple is working on its own pricy, foldable smartphone. Now that we know more about the history of cell phones, where will this journey take us next?
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