Most everyone has heard about how Star Trek was the inspiration for the cell phone. It makes sense if you look at the “communicator” from the original late ’60s version of the show—Captain Kirk and crew use it like a mobile phone, and it even looks like the flip phones that ruled the cellular market until iPhone came along. (Although the communicator had cooler flashing lights.)
The problem is, it’s not true. As Martin Cooper reveals in his new memoir Cutting the Cord: The Creator of the Cell Phone Speaks Out, cellular technology was actually being developed in the late ’50s and through the ’60s. By the time Star Trek debuted in 1966, Cooper and his team at Motorola were practically in the home stretch; in 1973, they debuted the first-ever handheld mobile telephone, the brick-like DynaTAC. Cooper himself made the first cell phone call on October 17, 1973—to his chief competitor at AT&T, with whom he’d been in a bit of a cellular space race, as revealed in the book.
In actual fact, it wasn’t Star Trek’s communicator that inspired the cell phone, but the two-way radio wristwatch that Dick Tracy wore in the 1930s comic strip the 92-year-old Cooper read as a kid. So who’s responsible for this long-standing lie? Uh, well … Martin Cooper.
“I did it,” Cooper told me in an interview earlier this year. “It’s one of the mistakes I made.”
It’s true. People had assumed that the show predicted the cell phone for decades, but it was actually a 2005 TV movie called How William Shatner Changed the World that first claimed that Cooper literally conceived of the cell phone after happening to catch an episode of Star Trek on TV one day. Cooper endorsed the story—you can still see the clip on YouTube—and he’s been paying for it ever since.
“I got caught up in this thing. Their premise was that the cell phone came from William Shatner and Star Trek, and I didn’t argue with them,” he says with a laugh. “This is show business! We don’t worry about facts! And I’ve had to live with that for how many years now? Since then, I keep saying ‘It wasn’t Star Trek, it was Dick Tracy.’ But nobody pays attention.”
With his new book, Cooper is finally setting the real history of the cell phone straight. An engineering genius who even has a tenet of wireless communication named after him (the Law of Spectral Efficiency, aka Cooper’s Law—I’m not going to explain it here, look it up), Cooper was born in Chicago to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, and worked for Motorola in Schaumburg, Illinois for almost three decades. After developing the DynaTAC and helping commercialize it, he left to co-found several companies—including in Silicon Valley, which he says he eventually had to go to in 1992 because “that’s where the smart people were”—that were also ahead of their time in the wireless industry.
Cutting the Cord lays out the little-known story of the cell phone in a way that’s never been done before. It’s a tale of a technological vision that’s filled with insight, drama, corporate intrigue, and a lot of serious ups and downs on the way to changing the world. In our interview, Cooper talked not only about the book and his own history, but also his frustrations with the state of cellular technology and his hopes for its future.
Your book starts with your family history, your parents and brother coming into the U.S. as undocumented immigrants, fleeing the pogroms in Ukraine. So often the American history of entrepreneurship is that immigrant story. You were born in the U.S., but do you think growing up in a family that was driven to succeed in a new country played a role in your fascination with understanding how things work, as revealed in your childhood love of taking things apart and putting them back together?
MARTIN COOPER: There must be. Take a look at all the entrepreneurs you’ve interviewed, and how many of them fit into this category. Certainly the issue of immigration is important, and you worry a little bit about whether we have too many rules keeping that from happening. Because growth in this country really depends upon immigrants coming in. My grandfather was an entrepreneur—he ran the local butcher shop—and he had six children. Five of the six children ended up becoming entrepreneurs. And they all looked down on the one who didn’t. And when you go to the next generation, there’s still a whole bunch of entrepreneurs. Even though I worked for Motorola for 29 years, I was an independent at Motorola. I was always grateful that they tolerated me for all that time, because I was an independent thinker and I did a lot of what I wanted to do—and not what they wanted me to do.
You write a lot about the environment at Motorola, and one of the things I think is so interesting about the history of technology in the latter half of the 20th century is that the creative environment at an individual organization mattered more than it had at perhaps any other time in history. I get the sense that Motorola in the late ’50s was a bit of a forerunner to Apple and Atari and other tech companies in terms of fostering an environment where innovation could thrive.
There’s no question about it. You think about, “What’s the most fundamental issue as far as creativity is concerned?” You know what it is, it’s doing things differently. When you do things differently, you’re taking a risk. The bigger a company gets, and the more influence shareholders have, the more risk-averse the company gets. Somehow at Motorola, at least during the period of time I was there, the company was in the control of the founder and the founder’s family. Of course they paid attention to their shareholders, but the Galvins ran the company, absolutely no doubt about it. And the theme that I mention in the book that I really took seriously—maybe too seriously—was “Do not fear failure! Reach out!” Paul Galvin demonstrated that when he made three attempts to start Motorola. The first one with batteries for cars, and that failed. Then he put heaters in the cars, and those started to explode. And his third attempt was to put a radio in the car, and that ended up succeeding. So he was a perfect example, and that attitude—thank goodness for me—prevailed at the company, certainly in the division that I was in.
At one point in the book, you talk about Motorola’s operating principle in the late 1950s being a model for the future ‘lean start-ups’ of Silicon Valley. What do you think today’s tech start-ups can learn from what was happening there?
It’s interesting that you ask that, because I didn’t write the book as a “how-to,” but in retrospect the question is really profound. Because the number one thing was “put yourself in the mind of the customer.” You have to understand the customer’s problem better than the customer does. Number two was “fear the competition.” Don’t worry about the competition, fear them! And believe me, we took that very seriously. And number three was “don’t ever fall in love with the technology.” Like I said in the book, technology is the application of science to make products and services that make people’s lives better. If you forgot about the people, it’s not technology. It’s curiosity. It’s anything but technology.
I love how the competition in this case, AT&T, plays a big role in your book—it’s almost the antagonist of your story, in a way. Clearly you pushed each other—almost everything you were doing was done in response to something they were doing, or they were doing something in response to what you had done. Do you think that was necessary for you to make the breakthroughs that you did, including the cell phone itself?
There’s no question that we were motivated by that. AT&T were not bad people; they were doing what monopolies do when they are in power. It was the fact that the government allowed them to be a monopoly that made them behave the way they did. When you live in that environment, you find out how important competition is to progress, and to driving things. There’s no question that we would not have started cellular if AT&T had not decided that they were going to do cellular and make it a monopoly. That was so abhorrent to us, to have them take a competitive business, and try to make the next generation a monopoly. We were fighting so hard to maintain a competitive environment in that business, and here they were trying to not only take over this new thing, but also take over the old businesses. So the biggest thing AT&T did was not come up with the concept of cellular, it was trying to commercialize it and make it monopolistic. If they hadn’t done that, it might have been years before we got around to it, or somebody else did.
Right, because when you went into that meeting in December of 1972 where you presented your concept for the first cell phone, you knew you only had until March of 1973 to get it finished. What I love about that scene in the book is that it illustrates how I think the process of invention often works—there’s years and years of steady build-up beforehand, and then all of a sudden at the end there’s a quick, desperate push. In that scene, you’re telling Rudy Krolopp to design a model for this portable cell phone in a matter of weeks, and he’s saying ‘What the hell is a portable cell phone?’ He doesn’t even know what you’re talking about, and you’re describing it by picking up an office phone and saying ‘Imagine this, if I cut the cord on it and could walk around anywhere while I talked on it.’
There were two issues. Number one was, you’re right, everything kind of culminated at that point, and we were forced to work day and night with a crew of brilliant people. But the other aspect of it is that it took years and years of building up to an understanding of what the market is, an understanding of what the technology is, a belief that people were going to behave in a certain way. And that started from the day I started in the research department at Motorola. So it did take both of those—the long trail of building up the background, and finally putting it all together in a sudden push.
What was it like when you first saw those prototype designs? You’ve got photos in the book, and some of those concepts were wild, but several would actually come to be realized much later, like the double-flip phone.
It’s much more amazing now when you’ve lived to see most of these versions commercialized. These guys were geniuses. I wouldn’t have asked Rudy to do this thing, and I wouldn’t have bought them all dinner, if I didn’t have enormous respect for them. Those [first prototypes] were just beautiful, and that’s why I preserved the pictures, and I suspect that Rudy or Ken Larson may have the original phones.
One of the key conceptual breakthroughs you had was the idea that ‘people connect with people, not places.’ It was so prescient—we’re only two decades into widespread cell phone use, and it’s already insane to remember that we used to have to run around from fixed point to fixed point to use a phone. How did that realization guide the process of creating the cell phone?
Well, remember we had a head start. We were in the two-way radio business, and we were trying to let people run their businesses—including police departments, fire departments—and we had discovered over a period of years that once they had this technology, and they had the freedom to manage mobile resources, they couldn’t run their businesses without them! And then we discovered that the freedom of mobility is not very free when you’re stuck in a car. So we knew that portables were the way to go. When we built phones for the police department and the people who run airport facilities, we made holsters for them, made out of leather, so they could carry them around with them. And then we’d walk through the airport and they’re walking around with these things in their hands! Is there a message there or not? Now you walk around and 30% of the people crossing the street are looking at their cell phones. It’s insane! But that’s what inventors do, they observe and find out what the nature of people’s behavior is, that’s the first thing to understand. And then find the technology to fix what people want.
You say you had a head start, but it’s funny how often you asserted that radio technology was the key to cellular, and how many people told you you were wrong—until you turned out to be right.
People are resistant to any change. The more profound the change is, the more people tell you it’s absolutely impossible. And I can’t tell you how many times people have told me something was impossible. I’ll jump ahead a little bit. Here I am now, I’m 92 years old, I really ought to be sitting back, but I’m on a technology advisory council for the FCC. The FCC is worried about the digital divide—and they should be. And one of the things about the digital divide is that you cannot get an education today without broadband. So the FCC has found a few billion dollars, and they’re going to provide broadband. Well, guess what? They’re talking about wired broadband. Now, have we learned a lesson, or have we not learned it? If you’re going to provide broadband to students, it’s got to be wireless, because they’ve got to have the same freedom that people needed for cellular, and for every other connectivity. So we’re going through the same thing again.
Speaking of resistance to change, it’s incredible that the cellular technology you introduced with the DynaTAC in the early 1970s languished for so long before people caught on to its potential.
In 1983, I was in the cellular billing business, trying to convince people, “This is going to be a big business, and you’re going to need to create bills for people and keep track of how much they’re talking,” and all that, and I get a guy from London who says, “Well, maybe you Americans will buy those things, but I’ve done a study and the long-term market in London is about 12,000 people who will buy cell phones.” That was the view people had. Ordinary people are not good at projecting what’s going to happen to technology. And technologists are not much better.
One of the things you stress in the book is that wireless is still in its infancy as a technology, with a lot more possible applications that could improve people’s lives around the world.
We haven’t figured out the cell phone yet. We’re just learning how to use the technology. The cell phones themselves are engineers’ ideas about what people ought to have. They are devices that try to do all things for all people, and don’t do any of them optimally. It’s going to take another generation, maybe two generations, to have a cell phone that meets my criteria for good technology. I know what bad technology is, and you do, too—with the first cell phones, the instruction manual was bigger and heavier than the phone. And then Steve Jobs comes along and he persuades us that things ought to be intuitive. You look at an icon and it should tell you what to do. And of course now, you have the option of selecting among two million icons, trying to figure out which one’s right for you. Intuitive is better than bad, but we know what the optimum technology is. Optimum technology is invisible. It’s there, you may know it’s there, but you’re unaware of it. It makes your life better, it solves your problems, and you never even have to think about it. And we are so far from that now with the cell phone. We have at least a human generation, as well as a technology generation, before we get close to what an optimum cell phone is. But I’m an optimist; I think you can tell that. I have the ultimate confidence in the ability of people to figure it out.