Bell Telephone Launched a Mobile Phone During the 1940s: Watch Bell’s Film Showing How It Worked




“Here comes a trailer truck out on the open highway, miles from the nearest town,” says the narrator of the short film above. Suddenly, it becomes “important for someone to get in touch with the drivers of this outfit. How can it be done?” Any modern-day viewer would respond to this question in the same way: you just call the guys. But Mobile Telephones dates from the nineteen-forties, well before the eponymous devices were in wide use — about four decades, in fact, before even the massive Motorola DynaTAC 8000X came on the market. The idea of calling someone not at home or the office, let alone a trucker on the road, would have seemed the stuff of science fiction.

Yet the engineers at Bell had made it possible, using a system that transmits conversations “partway by radio, partway by telephone lines.” This necessitated “a number of transmitting and receiving stations connected to telephone lines,” installed “at intervals along the highway so that one will always be in range of the moving vehicle.”

TASCHEN

As dramatized in Mobile Telephones, the process of actually ringing up the driver of a vehicle involves calling a classic forties switchboard operator and asking her to make the connection. But otherwise, the process won’t feel entirely unfamiliar to the mobile phone users today — that is, to the majority of the people in the world.

Cellphones have become such an integral part of life in the twenty-first century that few of us really feel the need to understand just how they work. But three quarters of a century ago, the idea of taking or making calls on the go was unfamiliar enough that viewers of a film like this would have wanted the mechanics laid out in some detail. Surely that held especially true for the industrial clients of Bell’s early mobile-telephone system, for whom its reliable functionality would translate into greater profits. Taking the longer view, this technological development marks, as the narrator reminds us over swelling music, “one more step toward telephone service for anyone, any time, anywhere”: a once-futuristic vision that now sounds practically mundane.

Related content:

“When We All Have Pocket Telephones”: A 1920s Comic Accurately Predicts Our Cellphone-Dominated Lives

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

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

In 1953, a Telephone-Company Executive Predicts the Rise of Modern Smartphones and Video Calls

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

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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Comments (6)
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  • Nuhampsha says:

    It’s called CB RADIO. Young people should read between the lines.

  • corey ellis says:

    ???

  • Jimbo0117 says:

    For those unfamiliar, that is exactly how cellular phones work today. Your call is only wireless between your phone and the cell tower. The cell tower then routes your call back into the wired network. So in a sense, the only thing that has changed from this depiction is that we’ve taken the operator out of the process through automation

  • Tommy says:

    I guess old people should research before they spout off…

    Invented by Al Gross in 1945, the CB radio originally served as a method of communication for troops during World War II. After the war, Gross worked to make it possible for two-way radios to be used for personal communication and the CB radio service was established by law in the U.S. in 1949.
    So…. don’t pick on young folks before you know the truth Karen…

  • An-D says:

    Using Google doesn’t make one smarter than another, especially when it’s clearly written with an undeserved sense intelligence.
    Two-way radio development started before 1893, with the U.S. Navy starting testing, on ships at sea, in 1898. The military has a long history of using technology decades ahead of what the general public has available, or is even aware of. Making the statement of CB radio being ‘invented’ in 1945, and available for public use in 1949, is a gross understatement of the technology.
    The article is merely pointing out, to the majority of people who are not aware, that mobile technology is not new, by several decades. Similar to the touch screen we all currently use everyday, it was actually being installed on very high-end homes in the early/mid 1990’s. Yes, I actually did help with installing a couple in the 90’s. But, most people just think that’s a 21st century invention.

    TL:DR, Googling something doesn’t mean you actually know what you’re talking about.

  • David says:

    I remember in the early ,70s my brother had a phone that seemed to combine cb technology with a telephone. I remember having to go through a switchboard to place your phone call

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