Bell Invented the Landline Phone, Ring Invented the Mobile Phone. No Kidding.
Cellular telephone was first described in a Bell Laboratories’ internal memorandum written by Douglas H. Ring in 1947. The memo laid out the essential elements of cellular radio: divide a city into cells, use low-power transmitters, and handoff calls from one frequency to another as mobile users travel from cell to cell. In theory, the cells can be divided over and over to achieve ever-greater capacity.
Ring, who passed away in 2000, never received the honor he deserved. Most cellular telephone histories—Bell Labs is responsible here—refer to him only as “D.H. Ring” if they mention him at all.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was for many years an obstacle to introducing the cellular telephone service. Regulation of the wireless spectrum has always been contentious, and though course corrections have been made over the years, the FCC has never been able to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies and markets. The FCC likes to pretend in hindsight that its leadership made cellular telephone successful. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The old FCC saw its main job as policing the radio spectrum. Consequently, the FCC was reluctant to introduce new services that would create more work for its staff. The FCC dragged its feet not only on cellular telephone, but services such as FM radio, television, and unlicensed radio.
The cellular telephone technical standard became a battle between AT&T and Motorola. The AT&T and Motorola cellular visions differed in several key respects. While AT&T focused exclusively on car phones, Motorola was convinced handheld subscriber devices were coming.
Motorola’s vision of handheld mobile phones, brought to life by Martin Cooper, heralded a future of personal communications. As Cooper later observed, cellular brought about a shift in which phones became associated with individuals rather than locations. Cooper placed the first official call from a portable cell phone in 1973, astonishing New Yorkers as he walked around the city talking on a phone. Today, people would be equally astonished to see someone using a mobile phone weighing almost two pounds.
The first commercial cellular telephone networks came online in Bahrain, Japan, and Mexico. But these were extremely limited systems. Then the U.S. truly fell behind. The first robust cellular telephone services were launched in Scandinavia in 1981.
What saved the U.S.’s lead in mobile telephone? The U.S.—thanks to its broad geography, extensive network of roads, and middle class prosperity—was the most mobile society on the planet. People in several professions could justify the high cost of the service just in terms of the time it saved them.
Scandinavia didn’t miss out completely, however. Nokia would go on to become the dominant supplier of mobile phones.
Nokia’s roots trace back more than a century. In 1865, mining engineer Fredrik Idestam started a paper mill based on a more cost-effective process. It was an immediate success. Idestam changed the company name to Nokia AB in 1871. “Nokia” was the local name for the marten, a northern weasel hunted for its sable-like fur. A cousin to the wolverine, it is also a carnivorous predator. Perhaps Idestam wanted people to think of Nokia as valuable to investors and customers and fearful to competitors. Or perhaps he just liked furry critters.
Nokia pioneered analog cellular phones in 1979 with Mobira Oy, a joint venture of Nokia and Finnish television manufacturer Salora. Nokia developed a digital telephone switch and the Mobira 450 Nordic Mobile Telephone (NMT) car phone in 1982. Two years later, it introduced the Mobira Talkman, a portable mobile phone for the NMT system. This was followed in 1987 by the 800-gram Mobira Cityman, the first handheld NMT phone.
Nokia succeeded, in part, because Finland had a more competitive telecommunications market than other European countries (where telephone service was often a government-run monopoly). The decision to aggressively pursue portable and handheld phones early—despite initial high costs and limited demand—positioned Nokia to benefit from the explosive subscriber growth ignited by digital cellular several years later.