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.”

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 (7)
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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

  • Joseph Carter says:

    It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see how mobile tele­phone tech­nol­o­gy has evolved over the years. This short film from the 1940s show­cas­es Bel­l’s ear­ly mobile-tele­phone sys­tem, which allowed con­ver­sa­tions to be trans­mit­ted part­ly by radio and part­ly by tele­phone lines. The process of mak­ing a call may seem out­dat­ed now, but it laid the ground­work for the mobile phones we use today. It’s a tes­ta­ment to the progress we’ve made in achiev­ing “tele­phone ser­vice for any­one, any time, any­where.”

    Also I need help, please tell me is this iPhone repair shop good for me thei­phonere­pair­world com/sh­er­man-oaks-ca/

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