The First Cell Phone: A Complete Phone History from 1920 to Present

| , | February 26, 2024

From Germany’s train operators testing wireless communication in the 1920s, the DynaTAC 8000X prototype, flip, and digital phones to the present-day devices, the first cell phone went through a lot of transformations.

The first cell phone made communication more accessible than it had ever been before with the mobile phone being the latest in a long line of innovations, and the one that fits the world in the palm of our hand.

Before we delve into the world of mobile phones, let’s have a look at the precursors to cell phone technology.

Earliest Forms of the First Cell Phone

first cell phone - a history of cell phones

Since the advent of the industrial revolution, interest in mobile communication had increased tenfold. Once radio communications and landline telephones became popular, people started to work on portable communication devices.

READ MORE: The Complete History of Phones from the Last 500 Years

Wireless Telephones in Trains

In 1920s Germany, train operators began testing the wireless communication. In 1924, a company called Zugtelephonie AG started supplying wireless telephone equipment for trains. The wireless model took off. It rapidly gained popularity and train operators in Europe started to use it.

Automobile Telephones

car-telephones
An old advertisement about automobile telephones

In the Second World War, military vehicles started using mobile radio systems. Before you knew it, companies around the world were offering mobile telephone systems for public vehicles. These systems had their fair share of issues, and the engineers at AT&T’s Bell Labs were committed to improving the technology.

By the 1970s, things were looking up. Mobile telephone networks vastly improved with the introduction of technologies like automatic cell switching and signaling systems.

The potential of the automobile telephone prompted the idea of a handheld mobile phone.

Who Invented the First Cell Phone?

Engineers at Bell Labs were hard at work, but they could not find a way to make the first mobile phone.

Cue, Motorola!

The newer generations might not be familiar with Motorola, the giant of the cell phone industry. But in the latter half of the 20th century, they were a big deal. Their success story began in 1973 when they produced the first handheld mobile phone.

The First Cell Phone

martin-cooper
Dr. Martin Cooper, the inventor of the cell phone, with the DynaTAC prototype from 1973

Motorola’s chief of portable communication products, John F. Mitchell, encouraged his team to make the first cell phone and was crucial in the development of the technology.

On April 3, 1973, Motorola engineer, Martin Cooper, rang his rival, Joel S. Engel of Bell Labs, from the first cell phone. The world had just witnessed its first mobile phone call. Later that day, Martin Cooper and his colleagues went to a news conference and revolutionized communication technology.

Motorola’s cell phone was called DynaTAC 8000X. The dimensions of the prototype used for the first call were 9.1 x 5.1 x 1.8 in (23 x 13 x 4.5 cm). It weighed around 2 kg (4.4 lb) and had to be charged for 10 hours for 30 minutes of talk time.

When Did Cell Phones Come Out?

Even though Motorola showcased the world’s first cell phone in 1973, it was still a prototype. It would take years of work for the Motorola Dynatac 8000x to become available to the general public.

The First Publicly Available Cell Phone

DynaTAC8000X

After 10 years and $100 million in development costs, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x was released to the market in 1983. The first commercial cell phone provided 30 minutes of talk time, could store 30 phone numbers, and cost $3,995.

New Competitors

Mobira Cityman 300
Mobira Cityman 300

In the following years, brick phones started to gain traction. Different companies started making cell phones, including the likes of Nokia and Samsung.

In 1987, the first Nokia cell phone, Mobira Cityman 900 appeared on the market. At 800 grams (less than a pound), it was considered relatively lighter. The next year, Samsung launched its first cell phone, the SH-100. It was Samsung’s first portable handheld telephone. Its precursor, the SH-1000, was a car phone.

The First Flip Phone

MicroTAC 9800X
MicroTAC 9800X

In 1989, Motorola released its MicroTAC 9800X. It was not the traditional flip cell phone, as the flip cover merely opened up the button section. The screen was always visible.

But, technically speaking, the first flip cell phone was the NEC TZ-804. It was created in 1991, but bad timing and a weak release inhibited it from becoming a roaring success.

Over the next few years, more advanced forms of flip phones would stay in the market and would even become the most in-demand mobile phones in many parts of the world.

The First Digital Mobile Phone

Motorola International 3200
Motorola International 3200

The Motorola International 3200 was another feather in the cap of the company. Made in 1992, the first digital phone was GSM compatible but was never certified.

Nokia Mobile Phones Arrive on the Market

Nokia 1011

That very year, in 1992, Nokia gave the market the world’s first mass-produced GSM phone, the Nokia 1011.

The cell phone was crucial in creating a space for Nokia in the mobile market. The first phone of its kind, it kicked off an incredible streak of Nokia mobile phones that would take over the cell phone market for years to come.

The First SMS

1992 was an important year for cell phones. It was during this year that the first SMS message was sent. Neil Papworth was working for a telecom contractor in the UK. The contractor was asked to develop a messaging service for Vodafone.

Neil sent the first-ever text message to the company director of Vodafone during the company’s Christmas party. It said,

Merry Christmas!

Vodafone Prepaid was launched in 1996 as a pay-as-you-go, non-contract phone service that helped normalize mobile phones in UK households.

The First Cell Phone with a Vibration Feature

Motorola StarTAC
Motorola StarTAC

The world of mobile phones turned on its axis in 1993 when the Motorola StarTAC, the first clam-shell phone, was introduced. It introduced the traditional flip design that remained in fashion for so long. It was also the first cell phone to include a vibration feature.

Widely considered the first flip cell phone, it was considered a marvel of innovation and Motorola was heralded for being ahead of the curve, once again.

The First Mobile Phone with a QWERTY Keyboard

Nokia Communicator 9000
Nokia Communicator 9000

Released in 1996, The Nokia Communicator 9000 was the first phone with a QWERTY keypad. It was a comprehensive device with features such as fax, web browsing, email, word processing, and spreadsheets.

It is not wrong to say that it was the first cell phone to feature such a comprehensive list of features. It was aimed at business personnel and as such, contained everything to attract its niche target audience.

The First Cell Phone with no Antenna

Progressing through the decade, mobile phones were getting better and better. Whereas the first phone was bulky, modern phones were trying to be anything but.

In 1997, the first phone without an external antenna came out. The Hagenuk GlobalHandy had no visible external antenna, giving it a unique look and appeal for its time.

The First Cell Phone with an ARM Processor

Nokia 6110
Nokia 6110

An ARM processor is built on a RISC-based architecture. RISC stands for Reduced Instruction Set Computer.

The Nokia 6110, launched in 1997, was the first cell phone to use an ARM processor.

Ever since ARM processors have dominated mobile phone technology. Their frugal energy consumption when compared to x86 processors makes them incredibly effective in modern mobile phone design.

The First Mobile Phone with a Color Screen

Siemens S10
Siemens S10

Released in 1998, the Siemens S10 was the first cell phone with a color screen.

BlackBerry Arrives on the Scene

BlackBerry 850
BlackBerry 850

In the decade of 2000s, BlackBerrys were all over the business world. It all started in 1999 with the BlackBerry 850, which featured the iconic QWERTY keyboard that BlackBerry became known for, even if it looked quite different from its later, more popular versions.

Ten years later, RIM was considered the fastest-growing company on the planet.

The First Tri-Band GSM Phone

Motorola Timeport
Motorola Timeport

Another major leap in the world of mobile phones, and who else could have orchestrated it but Motorola?

By this time, the mobile network infrastructure had developed considerably. The Motorola Timeport was the first phone that used three of the four GSM frequency bands, allowing it to be used anywhere in the world.

The First Cell Phone with an MP3 Player

Motorola and Nokia were constantly innovating and taking over the market, so in 1999, Samsung came out with its own little invention. The Samsung SPH-M100 Uproar combined an average cell phone with an MP3 player.

In an era where MP3 players were becoming more and more common, it was a nifty little innovation that had considerable appeal for several people. The cell phone had a dedicated play/pause button.

Nokia 3310

Nokia 3310
Nokia 3310

In the year 2000, a device stormed the cellular phone market. Nokia released its 3310 model, which quickly went on to sell millions of units — 126 million, to be exact. To this day, it remains one of the most popular phone models of all time.

The First Camera Phone

Sharp J-SH04
Sharp J-SH04

A phone with a camera may not seem like a pretty common thing nowadays, but it was a major shock to people when camera phones came out in the late 90s and early 00s.

It is widely believed that the Sharp J-SH04, released in Japan at the end of the year 2000, was the first camera phone. However, such documentation is misguided as the Kyocera VP-210 VisualPhone was the first cell phone to feature a camera. The phone could take up to 20 pictures with its 0.11 MP camera.

Samsung claims that it manufactured and released the first camera phone in the world: the SCH-V200, which came out in 2000.

The first widely available cell phone with a camera in Europe was the Nokia 6750 which arrived in 2002.

When Did the First Smartphone Come Out?

Since the time of the Motorola DynaTac 8000x, mobile phone technology had progressed exponentially. It was the hot item on the market. Every model had better performance, was sleeker, and had something new to offer.

The Nokia 8310, released in 2001, came with radio and calendar features. The Ericsson T39 was the first phone to have Bluetooth capability. In 2002, the Sanyo SCP-5300 displayed photos on the screen, sidestepping the long and tedious process of plugging the cell phone into a computer to see photos.

Motorola and Nokia were dominating the market. To the young and modern mobile phone users, these names may seem novel, but in the early 21st century, their mobile phones were the most sought-after commodities in the world.

The Motorola RAZR V3 phone became the best-selling clamshell phone in history between the years 2004 and 2006.

But the world that we are familiar with today was still a long way off. Cell phones were normal, but the era of smartphones was still ahead.

The Very First Smartphone

 IBM's Simon
IBM’s Simon

The first touchscreen phone dates back to 1994. IBM’s Simon, a device that featured apps and a touchscreen, is considered the world’s first smartphone. Some people claim that it was not a smartphone in modern terms and consider it a precursor to smartphones.

The timing was not right and it did not take off. But, in terms of the first relevant smartphone, one cannot help but refer to…

READ MORE: Who Invented Smartphone? Unraveling the History of Mobile Technology

The First iPhone

iPhone 2G
iPhone 2G

In 2007, cell phone history witnessed one of its most iconic and cherished moments. Apple released the first iPhone, known as the iPhone 2G, and shocked everyone. Its development, which started in 2005, had been kept under wraps.

A cell phone no longer had any need for buttons and low-quality screens. They had to move to interactive hardware. The transition to a touch-based interface was not without its issues, but eventually, it became the standard design for cell phones around the globe.

The iPhone had quad-band GSM cellular connectivity, internet browsing, a multimedia player, and a telephone, all in one device.

The very next year, the company released iPhone 3G and introduced the App Store, which allowed developers to create applications for their phones.

The First Android Phone

T-Mobile G1
T-Mobile G1

The O.G. of Android phones, the T-Mobile G1, also known as the HTC Dream, arrived on the market in 2008.

It ran on a Linux-based Operating System that fascinated Google. Google and Open Handset Alliance further developed the OS to compete with other operating systems available in the market, especially iOS.

Android offered integration with Google services. As a response to Apple’s App Store, Google announced Android Market in 2008.

In 2010, Google eBookstore debuted as the largest eBook collection in the world at the time. In 2011, Google introduced Google Music. In 2012, Google rebranded Android Market as Google Play Store.

Mobile phones had ushered into a new era. Over the last decade, Android became the go-to OS for cell phone developers. By 2013, it was the largest mobile phone operating system in the world.

The First 4G Connection

Cellular Networks had been consistently improving since the days of the initial portable handheld telephone. It had developed into a fairly practical system by the 21st century. In 2003, the 3G standard was being adopted around the world.

In 2009, another breakthrough occurred when a 4G connection was established and demonstrated in the UK. In 2010, Samsung launched the Samsung SCH-R900, the first 4G cell phone.

The Decline of Different Brands

Nokia N95
Nokia N95

In 2005, BlackBerry introduced the BlackBerry 7270, the first BlackBerry cell phone to include Wi-Fi. The appeal of wireless internet was so big at the time that consumers flocked to the product.

Similarly, in 2006, Nokia launched the Nokia N95, a smartphone that ran on Symbian that became quite popular at the time.

But, as Apple and Google marched into the market, several different brands, including Nokia, BlackBerry, and Motorola went into decline.

Nokia offered phones that had long battery lives and only needed to be charged once a week. When Apple unveiled a phone that needed daily charging, it seemed like a lost promise to the people at Nokia.

Eventually, Nokia failed to adapt to the market and fell out of the competition.

The Smartphone Revolution

A decade later, smartphones have completely changed our lives. It’s impossible to imagine a world without handheld gadgets. While it seems quite ordinary today, one cannot help but be indebted to the weight of the past.

Giants like Google, Apple, and Samsung rule the world of mobile phones and tech. But, if it was not for the constant innovation and singular vision of companies like Motorola and Nokia, these giants would not have had an opportunity to capitalize on the gains of their predecessors.

The efforts of the technicians, the designs of the engineers, and the ceaseless imaginations of pioneers have contributed to bringing us this small device. As we look at it, let’s be grateful for the endless passion and enduring hard work that helps keep the world connected.

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