Scientist Creates a Working Rotary Cellphone

In pop­u­lar his­to­ries of the mobile phone, and of the smart­phone in par­tic­u­lar, you will rarely see men­tion of IBM’s 1992 Simon, a smart­phone invent­ed before the word “smart­phone.” “You could… use the Simon to send and receive emails, fax­es, and pages,” writes Busi­ness Insid­er. “There were also a suite of built-in fea­tures includ­ing a notes col­lec­tion you could write in [with a sty­lus], an address book that looked like a file fold­er, cal­en­dar, world clock, and a way to sched­ule appoint­ments.”

Nifty, eh? But the Simon was born too soon, it seems, and its unsexy design—like a cord­less hand­set with a long, rec­tan­gu­lar screen where the num­ber pad would be—proved less than entic­ing. “IBM did man­age to sell approx­i­mate­ly 50,000 units,” a piti­ful num­ber next to the iPhone’s first year sales of 6.1 mil­lion. The Simon was an evo­lu­tion­ary dead end, while the iPhone and its imi­ta­tors changed the def­i­n­i­tion of the word “phone.”

No longer is it nec­es­sary even to spec­i­fy that one’s tele­phone is of the “smart” vari­ety. We can spend all day on our devices with­out ever mak­ing or answer­ing a call. Is this devel­op­ment a good thing? No mat­ter how we ask or answer the ques­tion, it may do lit­tle to change the course of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment or our depen­dence on the touch­screen com­put­ers in our pock­ets.

That is, unless we have the abil­i­ty to redesign our mobile phone our­selves, as Jus­tine Haupt—a sci­en­tist in the Instru­men­ta­tion Divi­sion at the Brookhaven Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry—has done. You’ll find no men­tion of any­thing like her rotary cell­phone in any his­to­ry of mobile telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions. No one would have seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered build­ing such a thing, except as an anachro­nis­tic nov­el­ty.

But Haupt’s rotary cell­phone is not a visu­al gag or piece of con­cep­tu­al art. It’s a work­ing device she built, osten­si­bly, for seri­ous rea­sons. “In a finicky, annoy­ing, touch­screen world of hyper­con­nect­ed peo­ple using phones they have no con­trol over or under­stand­ing of,” she writes, “I want­ed some­thing that would be entire­ly mine, per­son­al, and absolute­ly tac­tile, while also giv­ing me an excuse for not tex­ting.”

Haup­t’s rea­son­ing calls to mind J.G. Bal­lard’s com­ments on the car as “the last machine whose basic tech­nol­o­gy and func­tion we can all under­stand.” She lays out the rotary cellphone’s impres­sive fea­tures in the bul­let­ed list below:

  • Real, remov­able anten­na with an SMA con­nec­tor. Recep­tions is excel­lent, and if I real­ly want to I could always attach a direc­tion­al anten­na.
  • When I want a phone I don’t have to nav­i­gate through menus to get to the phone “appli­ca­tion.” That’s bull­shit.
  • If I want to call my hus­band, I can do so by press­ing a sin­gle ded­i­cat­ed phys­i­cal key which is ded­i­cat­ed to him. No menus. The point isn’t to use the rotary dial every sin­gle time I want to make a call, which would get tire­some for dai­ly use. The peo­ple I call most often are stored, and if I have to dial a new num­ber or do some­thing like set the vol­ume, then I can use the fun and sat­is­fy­ing-to-use rotary dial.
  • Near­ly instan­ta­neous, high res­o­lu­tion dis­play of sig­nal strength and bat­tery lev­el. No sig­nal meter­ing lag, and my LED bar­graph gives 10 incre­ments of res­o­lu­tion instead of just 4.
  • The ePa­per dis­play is bista­t­ic, mean­ing it does­n’t take any ener­gy to dis­play a fixed mes­sage.
  • When I want to change some­thing about the phone’s behav­ior, I just do it.
  • The pow­er switch is an actu­al slide switch. No hold­ing down a stu­pid but­ton to make it turn off and not being sure it real­ly is turn­ing off or what.

I wouldn’t hold my breath for a pro­duc­tion run, but “it’s not just a show-and-tell piece,” Haupt insists. “It fits in a pock­et; it’s rea­son­ably com­pact; call­ing the peo­ple I most often call if faster than with my old phone, and the bat­tery lasts almost 24 hours.” For the rest of us, it’s a con­ver­sa­tion starter: in less obvi­ous­ly quirky, retro ways, how could we reimag­ine mobile phones to make them less “smart” (i.e. less dis­tract­ing and inva­sive) and more per­son­al and cus­tomiz­able, while also enhanc­ing their core func­tion­al­i­ty as devices that keep us con­nect­ed to impor­tant peo­ple in our lives?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lyn­da Bar­ry on How the Smart­phone Is Endan­ger­ing Three Ingre­di­ents of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Lone­li­ness, Uncer­tain­ty & Bore­dom

Film­mak­er Wim Wen­ders Explains How Mobile Phones Have Killed Pho­tog­ra­phy

The World’s First Mobile Phone Shown in 1922 Vin­tage Film

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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