The First Cellphone: Discover Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X, a 2‑Pound Brick Priced at $3,995 (1984)

We get the cul­ture our tech­nol­o­gy per­mits, and in the 21st cen­tu­ry no tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment has changed cul­ture like that of the smart­phone. As with every piece of per­son­al tech­nol­o­gy that we strug­gle to remem­ber how we lived with­out, it evolved into being from a series of sim­pler pre­de­ces­sors that, no mat­ter how clunky they seem now, were received as tech­no­log­i­cal mar­vels in their day. Take it from Mar­tin Coop­er, the Motoro­la Engi­neer who invent­ed the first hand­held cel­lu­lar mobile phone. “We did­n’t know it was going to be his­toric in any way at all,” he says of the first pub­licly demon­strat­ed cell­phone call in 1973 in the Bloomberg video above. “We were only wor­ried about one thing: is the phone going to work when we turn it on?”

The device Coop­er had in hand was the pro­to­type that would even­tu­al­ly become the Motoro­la DynaT­AC 8000X, the first com­mer­cial portable cel­lu­lar phone. (This as dis­tinct from the exist­ing car-phone sys­tems that Coop­er cred­its with inspir­ing him to devel­op an entire­ly hand­held ver­sion.) Brought to mar­ket in 1983, it weighed about two pounds, took ten hours to charge a bat­tery that last­ed only 30 min­utes, could store no more than 30 phone num­bers, and cost near­ly $10,000 in today’s dol­lars.

Yet “con­sumers were so impressed by the con­cept of being always acces­si­ble with a portable phone that wait­ing lists for the DynaT­AC 8000X were in the thou­sands,” says Motoro­la design mas­ter Rudy Krolopp as quot­ed by the Project Man­age­ment Insti­tute. “In 1983, the notion of sim­ply mak­ing wire­less phone calls was rev­o­lu­tion­ary.”

38 years after “the brick,” as the 8000X was known, we’ve grown so used to that notion that many of us hard­ly ever make wire­less phone calls any­more, pre­fer­ring to com­mu­ni­cate on our phones through text mes­sages or an ever-expand­ing uni­verse of inter­net-based apps — to say noth­ing of the oth­er aspects of our lives increas­ing­ly han­dled through palm-sized touch­screens. “The mod­ern smart­phone is a tech­no­log­i­cal mar­vel,” says Coop­er. “It real­ly is incred­i­ble, all the stuff that is squeezed into that cell­phone.” Yet despite the aston­ish­ing evo­lu­tion of his inven­tion it rep­re­sents, he’s not sat­is­fied. “We think that we can make a smart­phone that does all things for all peo­ple, and yet we know that it does­n’t do any of those things per­fect­ly. We’ve still got a ways to go.” If you’re read­ing this on a smart­phone, know that you hold in your hand the “brick” of 2059.

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

A 1947 French Film Accu­rate­ly Pre­dict­ed Our 21st-Cen­tu­ry Addic­tion to Smart­phones

When We All Have Pock­et Tele­phones (1923)

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

Sci­en­tist Cre­ates a Work­ing Rotary Cell­phone

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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