It has been 40 years since Martin Cooper made the first mobile phone call from a handheld device

It all started with one 'Brick'. Literally. The first-ever mobile phone weighed half as much as a red clay brick, was barely handy and could hardly be trusted to last you through the long phone conversations you now take for granted.

Forty years ago, when the first cellphone call was made, it was the culmination of over two decades of work in a highly competitive field — where a Chicago-based laboratory was trying to beat communications legend AT&T Bell Labs at making the first phone call on a handheld mobile device. On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper, a Motorola researcher and executive, made the historic call: he dialled his rival Joel S. Engel at Bell Labs — nearly a century after Alexander Graham Bell made that famous first phone call — informing him that his lab at Chicago had beaten them to it. He said: “Joel, this is Marty. I’m calling you from a cellphone, a real handheld portable cellphone.”

The conversation was reportedly short. This was more out of compulsion rather than choice given the charge on the prototype phone would last for only 20 minutes. It took 10 hours to recharge and was 9 inches long, 5 inches deep and 1.75 inches wide. The Motorola DynaTAC, dubbed 'the brick', weighed around 1 kg — an inconceivable figure today — and took a little over three months to build. Compare this to the phone Martin Cooper uses today, as reported in a 2012 interview with The Verge , and you know how incredibly far we’ve come. The Droid Razr, also Motorola’s phone, which he uses, weighs a little over 120 grams.

'Beat the monopoly'

In the interview, where he looks back on all that happened in the lab in Chicago, he speaks about what really motivated the “little company in Chicago” to take on “the biggest company in the world by every measure.” “The idea of why that was done was much more a sense of pride [than conceiving the first cellphone]. That was we had to beat AT&T — we had to beat the monopoly… and we beat ’em. If AT&T had won then they would still be a monopoly — by the way, that’s starting to happen again, and I hope that doesn’t happen...” Cooper says the reason they built the phone was to prove to the world that you didn’t have to have a monopoly over the business, you didn’t have to have those resources to make cellular a reality.

Ironically, today, Google, a monopoly player in this age of the Internet, owns Motorola Mobility, the handset division of the 80-year old company where Cooper once waged his war against monopolies. The acquisition was one that had more to do with acquiring control of key mobile patents — Motorola's 17,000 strong patent portfolio gives the relatively new internet firm an upperhand in the patent wars that mobile companies are now waging — than with technology or business.

Commercial release

Back to the mobile phone, whose 40th anniversary we are celebrating. It wasn’t till a whole decade later, in 1983, that DynaTac could leave the comfort of Motorola’s laboratory. The commercial release of DynaTac 8000X, for a cool $4,000, marked the birth of an industry. From a total of 30 circuit boards to tens of thousands of transistors now integrated into one device, the mobile phone has travelled a long way.

Over the next three decades, the technology took a quantum leap. Networks were quickly forced to move from analog to digital (known commonly as 2G networks, first launched in Finland) expanding exponentially in capacity. The growth of the mobile, networks and devices, is more of a global story; for, when cellular networks went digital, Japan became the first country to have a nation-wide commercial automated cellular network in the early 1980s, followed by fully automatic systems launched by Nordic Mobile Telephones in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.

Then, along came the Internet, followed by Internet on the move. This changed everything. As more people logged on to the net, networks were forced to upgrade, from packet switching to circuit switching and now, in its fourth generation, to a packet-switching and IP-based communications protocol. Falling transistor prices and the increasing density of transistors on chips led to an explosion in computing power, shrinking of gadget size and a decline in device costs; forcing cellphones to shed their aura of exclusivity.

The India story

India didn't make its first cellphone call till the mid 1990s. In July 1995, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Jyoti Basu and the then Union Communications Minister Sukh Ram made mobile history when they exchanged pleasantries in the first mobile phone call in India. Though mobile calls remained hugely expensive (early incoming and outgoing rates started around Rs. 32 per minute), and phones remained out of the reach of the aam aadmi till the mid-2000s here, the latter part of the new millennium saw an explosion in gadgets and the network. Global OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) made phones specifically for India -- remember, those Nokia 'Made for India' phones with the special extra bright torch unit -- and reduced price points significantly. As of May 2012, in a country of 1.21 billion, we have around 923.37 million cellphone connections.

Lasting impact

The device has had a lasting impact on nearly everything: the way we communicate, the way we write — Union Communications Minister Kapil Sibal has even written poetry on his BlackBerry — the way we speak and think, how we check time or listen to music and most importantly, the way we access information. The impact has been huge, particularly in countries like India where -- just as those cellphone advertisements quite unrealistically remind us -- the real promise of mobile communications lies in the field of education, telemedicine or just simply making information accessible to all.