“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.
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.