A History of Mobiles Phones: Part One

Gabriela D'Souza | February 21st 2019

Image of an old style mobile phone
Image by Garry Knight via Wikimedia Commons

This is what a "mobile" phone used to look like!

The history of mobile phones is always going to begin with a single divergent point -- where mobile phone technology becomes distinct from traditional switch-based telephone technology. And as you may have guessed, this delineation is very murky for the first few months of mobile phone technology, culminating clearly in the 1990s when 2G cellular networks became more commonplace, and mobile phones became something very distinct from portable phones.

But we're gonna start a little earlier than here, and by the end of this part one we'll have worked our way through to the 2G era. Briefly, though, what are the precedents of the mobile phone revolution, and how did cellular networks get developed the way they did?

The Precedents

Portable phone technology has been theorized, prototyped, and even developed since basically as long as we've had phones at all. In 1908, the Oakland Transcontinental Aerial Telephone and Power Company announced they were developing a wireless telephone. However, they were accused of fraud for this -- the charges may have been dropped, but no prototype from the company ever emerged.

Innovation in the field of wireless phones first occurred in the public sector, with the German government experimenting with wireless phone installations on trains as early as 1918. In 1924, Weimar-era Germany expanded these military trials to public transportation, with these prototypes being tested on the busy Berlin-Hamburg train route. The next year, the first dedicated wireless phone company, known as Zugtelephonie AG was founded to provide wireless phone service on German first class trains.

This technology largely carried over into the Second World War, with the advent of the Walkie Talkie. This crude wireless phone technology proved invaluable for deployed units on both sides of the Axis/Allies divide.

Post-war America saw the first usage of the term "mobile phone", with Bell Labs inaugurating the Mobile Telephone Service (MTS) in 1946. The service was a crude, but groundbreaking mobile phone network that provided service to select governmental, military, scientific, and business users on America's eastern seaboard. In 1949, the MTS was expended by AT&T, based out of its midwestern hub of St. Louis, Missouri.

Over the next few decades, mobile technology developed in a few ways. Competing theories on the efficacy of cellular networks emerged over the decades following the 1940s, and in the 1970s American wireless phone manufacturers began exploring handheld portable phone technology. These factors would combine to become the perfect melange of 2G technology, but first let's take a look at 1G, and what that means.

1G: The First Generation

As you may have guessed, the G in 1G and all its subsequent sequel Gs stands for "generation". 1G isn't particularly well known, but it held its own sway and influence in the development of the ultimately more memorable 2G revolution that would come in its wake.

1G represented the establishment and proliferation of standardized cellular networks, functioning essentially as a patchwork analog equivalent to the 2G network that would ultimately come in its wake.

Japan led the way on the the 1G revolution, with 1979 seeing the establishment of the NTT system. Japan was in the midst of their great post-war economic miracle, and the establishment of the network was due to Japan heavily investing in its tech sector, a sector that burgeoned due to a combination of investment and improvement of their manufacturing sector, as well as a country that was starting to indulge in that old friend of cheap credit quite heavily.

Japan's initial investment in this technology did not go unnoticed. The social democratic techs projects of Nordic countries in the late 70s and early 80s had produced a similar tech sector boom in these northern European nations. With an emphasis on government supported programs, funding a parallel network to Japan's NTT became a pet project for the Nordic nations. From this social planning emerged the NMT, the first NTT-compatible analog 1G network.

North America was not far behind in the 1G field -- Bell Labs' AMPS system in the US and Canada in 1983, and expanded to Israel, Singapore, Pakistan, and Australia by the end of the decade. Companies like Ameritech and Motorola made a large amount of money off of developing this early AMPS system and subsequent phones connected to it.

Similar networks 1G networks emerged in western Europe, and eventually spread to Russia and eastern Europe as well. To this day, the only remaining 1G cellular network in operation is in Russia.

A History of Mobile Phones: Part 2

Assorted mobile phones

We continue to explore the history of mobile devices, all the way to the rise of smart phones!

Nokia's Indestructable Icon

Nokia 3310

The 3310 were famed for their extreme durability and longevity, and that's no lie. I dropped mine on concrete, from my third story apartment balcony, and it fell off my bedside table countless times.