"Do you know where I am?" The Cell Phone Turns 30.
From the decade of the 1980s -- those heady times that brought us such luminaries as the Fiero, the DeLorean, the Cimarron, and the unforgettable RAMPAGE! -- comes something else that we all love to hate. . . and love: the cellular telephone.
Today, October 13, 2013, is the thirtieth anniversary of the cell phone. Now, some may quibble about the date and argue that the true birth of the cellular telephone came at least a decade earlier, on April 3, 1973 when Martin Cooper made a call from a Manhattan street corner using an incipient cellular network. However, that call was made from a prototype phone on a prototype network, and the technology was not commercially viable for another ten years. It wasn't until 1983 that the first commercial phone call was made on equipment and a network that was then ready for market.
Love it, hate it, denigrate it, celebrate it: it's here to stay. Cell phones enhance, structure, provide entertainment for, and some would say rule, our lives these days--even among those who have yet to embrace the technology--and many if not most of us now wonder how we ever got along without them.
But what does this have to do with Car Lust? A couple of things, actually. For one, the earliest cell phones were primarily used in cars as the automobile provided a handy power source and a place to put the equipment necessary for receiving, sending, and processing calls. Telephones in cars weren't entirely unknown prior to that time, but they were exceptionally rare and confined mostly to the very wealthy and/or powerful. And second, that first call was made from a perennial (if somewhat underserved) Car Lust favorite, which will be revealed later.
I aim here not to provide an extensive history of the cell phone, nor even a detailed timeline of car phones, though both subjects will be touched on. Rather, I hope the reader will indulge me for a bit while I look back a bit to see what life was like before we were able to be in constant contact 24/7/365, often whether we like it or not, and how this has changed the motoring landscape. And maybe do a little cultural and automotive reminiscing along the way.
Can you hear me now?
Consequently, the use of mobile phone service was largely restricted to wealthy businessmen (and no doubt some women, of course) and Very Important People in other areas. For an example of how it worked and how novel it was even as late as the 1960s to be able to make a phone call from your car, check out the following clip from The Andy Griffith Show which aired in early 1966:
The system was upgraded in 1965 to utilize more channels and allow for self-dialing and it worked reasonably well (if you could afford it), but was susceptible to various forms of interference and still could only handle a limited number of calls at any one time. Hence, making a phone call from the road -- or anywhere else not attached to a land line -- was, until really very recently, still considered the sole purview of the rich and famous.
Not to get too far off the beaten path, but I'd like you to ponder the following probably soon-to-be-extinct piece of technology:
For those under a certain age, that device in the photo is a "pay telephone" or "pay phone" and they used to be ubiquitous in nearly every city and town. If you were out and about and needed to make a call, you had to locate one of these things, dig in your pocket or purse to get some change (or hope the call-ee would "accept the charges" for a "collect call"), and then try not to think about all of the other people who had used that phone in the recent past and their potential diseases still lingering about the handset. Anecdotally, back in my youth we discovered that the phone company -- and I mean The Phone Company, not a phone company -- wouldn't actually bill a call that lasted no more than about two seconds; so, when we needed our parents to come pick us up from whatever function we were at, we'd dial home and the instant mom or dad answered we'd do a quick "Come and get us!" and hang up.
For that matter, for many of my parents' generation (born in the 1930s-ish) making a phone call was almost considered something of a luxury, and a long distance call was often thought of as a special occasion. I remember the yearly ritual around Christmastime of various relatives calling our house and having all of us talk to whoever it was in turn because, well, you only got to hear from them once a year or so! And it could be pricey. For example, a five minute call cross-country during the day in 1975 cost $2.16 or $9.00 in 2012 dollars (source).
Even into the 1980s my dad would occasionally suggest that, to save money on the monthly bills, we kids should just not get phone service in our apartments and use the closest pay phone whenever we needed to call someone. I can almost see the jaws of readers under the age of about 30 dropping at the very notion of having to go outside and down the street to make a simple telephone call (at a quarter a pop to boot!).
I could go on and on bellyaching (and perhaps waxing a bit poetic, I suppose) about the vicissitudes of life before the cell phone, but I'll save it for the comments. However, before we head back to the automotive portion of this post, I will leave you with this clip from 1954 detailing the proper use of one of those newfangled devices, the "rotary dial Tele-phone":
Among the other limitations of those early mobile systems was the bulky (and expensive) equipment that pretty much limited them to automobiles and limited 'roaming' ability -- once you got out of range of a single tower, you were basically cut off. Consequently, almost as soon as the first mobile phones were being rolled out the 'cellular' concept was already being developed. In this system, instead of a single high-power transmission tower handling calls over a wide area, numerous lower power towers would be spread across a series of smaller area resulting in a number of contiguous hexagonal zones -- cells -- wherein each tower would handle whatever signals were in its area before handing a particular call off to another tower when the user left a given cell. This would allow for more directionality in the signals (to increase signal clarity and reduce interference) and provide the ability to handle more calls since multiple towers were handling calls instead of one or a few. While nice in theory, the switching capabilities needed to process volumes of calls moving from one cell to another were prodigious and beyond mid-century technology. Come the age of the transistor and integrated circuits and such a system would finally be ready for use.
Pride of place for that first cellular call is usually accorded to Martin Cooper of Motorola who, on April 3, 1973 placed a call to Bell Labs' Dr. Joel Engel while standing on a Manhattan street corner. He was using what is, arguably, the first truly handheld cell phone, a prototype of the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, later known affectionately(?) as the Motorola Brick. While today we may scoff at the idea of a 2.5-pound phone being considered "portable," at the time it was pretty revolutionary. Those early car-based mobile phones often weighed in at around 80 pounds altogether, so something you could at least fit into a briefcase or purse and use without it being attached to a large battery was downright amazing.
You may be forgiven for not recalling the Great Cellular Telephone Revolution of the 1970s that immediately followed that momentous occasion...because, well, it didn't happen. It took several years for the technological and regulatory infrastructure to develop. Fast-forward to 1983 when Bell Labs' Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS) was ready to make its commercial debut. To kick off the new cellular system, Bob Barnett of Ameritech Mobile Communications made the first commercial cellular telephone call while sitting in a car in Chicago's Soldier Field parking lot. Fortunately, the folks at National Geographic have provided a video of that first call as part of their series The '80s: The Decade That Made Us that gives a short summary of that first call along with footage of it. Please click through to the link and watch the video; we were unable to get the video to properly embed within this post.
Alert viewers will note that the car he is sitting in is a Chrysler K-Car, probably a LeBaron convertible. We haven't (oddly) covered the K-Car lineup in any depth, although it's made an appearance at times. I've always had something of a soft spot for K-Cars and a post for the lineup in general is still percolating deep in the recesses of my Car Lust brain. To be completely fair, Wikipedia mentions that one David D Meilahn placed a call to Barnett prior to the filmed call above, this while sitting in his 1983 Mercedes 380SL. I have no other source for this, so we'll have to just leave it at that, although I'm still betting on the Chrysler as The First.
And thus began what is probably the second biggest technological revolution of my lifetime, the first being the computer and Internet. While it took a couple of decades for cellular telephones to become really affordable to the masses, they've slowly but surely begun to all but replace the land line for most people here and throughout the world. In fact, cellular networks are probably giving more people worldwide the ability to communicate than even the humble land line ever did: in developing countries it's far easier to set up a bunch of cell towers than it is to lay land lines all over the place. As a consequence, many people in large parts of the world adopted cell phones before land lines.
For a long time, automotive versions still dominated the cell phone market, in large part because the equipment (see The Brick above) was still too bulky to carry around efficiently and power requirements were such that a car battery provided a more reliable amount of juice. Those were the first ones that I encountered; heck, even my mom had one before I did because back in the '90s I didn't drive all that much (not to mention being a poor starving grad student for that whole decade). For a time, the little squiggly-shaped antenna made for a little status symbol showing the world that the driver owned a *gasp!* car phone.
For those of us old enough to remember a time without the ubiquitous cell phone, the changes it hath wrought are many. For the motoring public, it's brought both safety and danger. Used to be if you found yourself stranded by the side of the road you'd have to wait for the kindness of a passing stranger to give you a lift to the nearest pay phone or mechanic, such as our stranded motorist in the Andy Griffith clip; now you whip out your phone and call someone for assistance. Of course, since cars have gotten so much more reliable the very odds of being stranded in the first place have gotten much smaller and, as we noted in an earlier installment, being out of cell phone coverage has become the de facto staple of horror movies in lieu of a car not starting.
The downside, of course, has been an additional distraction for drivers to deal with. Who among us hasn't muttered something like "Well, if you'd just hang up and drive. . . ." (other more colorful phraseology may apply) at another driver who's done something of which we disapprove? Frankly, while many so-called safety advocates and government officials have hyperventilated and demonized 'talking while driving' I remain unconvinced that cell phone use has created exceptionally more carnage on our roads over and above, say, eating while driving, fiddling with the radio while driving, shutting up the kids in the back seat while driving, etc. Leastways, even while cell phone usage has skyrocketed, at a macro level there hasn't been a corresponding increase in traffic fatalities (I know, I know, let the arguments fly).
And so, here we are 30 years later with cell phones as common as, well, the family car. It's certainly been both a blessing and a curse, as is nearly every technology. These days we can enjoy the convenience of being in contact at all times, but at the same time. . . .well, we can loathe the necessity of being in contact at all times. In all honesty, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've used a phone while driving because, well, shut up, I'm driving. Okay, with my car I'm hard pressed to hear the dumb thing ring let alone carry on a reasonable conversation, what with all the road (and engine!) noise. And thankfully (*knock wood*) I haven't had to use one in any sort of road emergency. Besides, most of the time I'm having too much fun driving to be blathering at someone on a phone. But it gives me a great deal of comfort to know that, if needed, I'm just a few button-pushes away from help if I need it, be it a cracked engine block or a call back to the office for an update on the address I'm supposed to be going to.
The top photo of the yuppie is from another classic 1980s post, the BMW 3-series. The DynaTAC photo from Wikipedia. The photo of a the pay phone is from, oddly, is from Tim's Strategy page for performing a job search using pay phones. The old car phone poster is from Tosh.O's blog. The other videos are embedded from YouTube.