40 Years of the Cellphone: Key Moments in Mobile History

It may have started with the ultimate gloat, but in the 40 years since the first cellphone call, we've come a long way. Here are the five moments that best defined the history of the cellphone.

“Joel, this is Marty. I’m calling you from a cellphone, a real hand-held portable cellphone.”

With those words, a gloat by Motorola engineer Marty Cooper to Bell Labs employee Joel Engel, a new era of business began.

While the cellphones of old look nothing like the devices that we use today, they quickly found a role in business and eventually began redefining how we approach business at large.

On April 3, 1973, the cellphone started its long journey from intriguing novelty to always-nearby, persistent device. And while the cellphones of old look nothing like the devices we use today, they quickly found a role in business and eventually began redefining how we approach business at large.

Read on for our look back at 40 years of the cellphone:

The first commercial call: Soldier Field, the NFL’s longest-operating stadium, might be better known as the home of the Chicago Bears, but it also played a key role in the history of wireless communications, as it was the place where the first commercial cellphone call was made on October 13, 1983, between insurance executive David Meilahn and the granddaughter of Alexander Graham Bell, who was located in Germany at the time. CTIA: The Wireless Association reflects on the feat in the video above. At the time, it wasn’t cheap to make such a call: The Motorola DynaTAC phones cost $3,995—due partly to the high cost of producing the devices. And the usage rates would make many faint—on top of the $50 per month bill, there were different per-minute charges for peak and off-peak times. Oh, and good luck putting that thing in your pocket.

The networks set the pace: There was a time when cellphones relied on analog networks, but that era ended a long time ago—by the early ’90s, everyone was going digital. One of the earliest industry standards, the European-built Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), was first used for phone calls by the prime minister of Finland in 1991—using a Nokia device—a moment captured for posterity in the video above. (By the way, it’s worth noting that the GSM Association, launched in 1995 and named for the standard, remains active to this day.) From there, more recent mobile standards emerged, including CDMA (code division multiple access), widely used by Verizon and Sprint devices, and LTE (long-term evolution), which many 4G devices use.


The photo that started everything: It only makes sense that the first camera phone photo was a baby picture. The photo, taken by engineer Philippe Kahn on June 11, 1997, featured his daughter Sophie. Describing his invention, he told Mashable, “I wanted to create a 21st-century version of a Polaroid picture.” By the early 2000s, camera phones (most famously the Motorola RAZR) were common, and considering that more than a quarter of all photos were taken by smartphones by 2011 and Instagram has more than 100 million active users, it seems that he got even more than he wished for.

In ways big and small, the BlackBerry has changed the way Congress does business.

The BlackBerry’s rise: While the device first focused on sending emails and two-way texts and only got phone features in 2003, the launch of the BlackBerry, named for the distinctive shape of the device’s keyboard, created the rise of the smartphone and became a must-have device for federal employees, executives, and even presidents. “In ways big and small, the BlackBerry has changed the way Congress does business,” Politico noted in a 2008 article on the phenomenon. Even to this day, it’s the device of choice for many federal agencies, though newer devices are encroaching on their territory. Such as …

Apple goes multitouch: With the launch of the first iPhone (shown above), Apple took a device once suited only for communicating and turned it into something that packed the power of a computer—and a wide audience followed. While the first iteration of the device didn’t allow for native apps, the eventual decision to open it up to developers helped redefine the industry, with many apps and competitors (most notably, Google’s popular Android platform) following quickly in the company’s tracks.

But with 47.8 million iPhones sold in its most recent quarter, we’ve come a long way from the Gordon Gecko devices that once were a novelty. Now, they’re an essential business tool.

And with such technologies as cloud computing and trends such as bring your own device, the take-anywhere phone, launched with a gloat from one engineer to another, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

In the spirit of great mobile moments, what’s the best cellphone call you’ve ever made? Tell us about it in the comments.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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