A Brief History of Telephone Technology

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Micro-History 3: The Mobile Phone

The artifact I chose to represent mobile phones is also a representation of how technologies in general sure have come a long way. The Motorola DynaTac 8000X was the first handheld cell/mobile phone released to the public, occurring in the year 1984 (Wolpin, 2014). Looking back on it, seemed to be a quite interesting development at the time for many reasons. First of all, compared to today’s mobile phones, it was humongous, weighing 28 ounces, and having dimensions of 13 by 1.75 by 3.5 inches (Wolpin, 2014). In fact, everyone knew it was a big revelation, so Motorola creators and the public dubbed it “The Brick” (Wolpin, 2014). Second of all, this device costed $3,995, a very hefty price to pay, being the equivalent of $9,000 in the year 2014 (Wolpin, 2014). While cell phones today are not always cheap, they certainly are not that expensive, either. Third of all, something that would drive people mad today is the fact that The Brick’s battery life was only about 30 minutes (Wolpin, 2014). Even today’s iPhones sometimes will not cut it, so only having 30 minutes to speak seems like a modern-day travesty. All jokes aside, it truly shows we have come a long way, as well as the fact that everything has to start somewhere. When this device was consumed by more and more people, it did not yet begin the mobile phone revolution, because the reality was that only the rich had them due to their steep price. However, like anything in technology, especially in communication technology, it started at such a high price because the technology was not improved upon and not ready for the masses to consume it yet, leaving only the rich to be able to afford it, a common matter with prior communication technologies. The mobile phone would go on to change the shape of telecommunications, setting a precedent for what we consume today and moving in a completely different direction than original telephones such as the landline.

Figure 1

Dynatac Cellular Telephone

Note. Adapted from Dynatac Cellular Telephone [Mobile Phone Artifact]. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute. (n.d.). https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1191361.

Prior to the Telephone…

The beginnings of the mobile phone in the telephone’s historical context ranges somewhere in the middle of the telephone’s beginnings and where telecommunications stand currently. Early telecommunications methods started with the ever-so-famous Alexander Graham Bell, the pioneer of the telephone. While that is the earliest rendition of what a telephone actually is, it would not be right not to mention early efforts at transmitting messages across distances. Some of these technologies include the telegraph and the acoustic telephone, the cup or can and string “telephone” turned children’s toy (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d.). The acoustic telephone was created in 1672 by Robert Hooke, an English scientist (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d.). After that, the telegraph paved the way for the telephone’s success because it set up the model of infrastructure for the telephone without even realizing it. In 1858, “the first transatlantic telephone [telegraph] cable” was laid down, connecting England and the United States, which allowed for the world to be connected from that point forward (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d., 1858 section). Very similar principles of infrastructure exist today, connecting countries and the world together with many fiber optic lines under the world’s oceans, which is a thing that is unknown by many.

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The Creation of the Telephone, First Telephone Call

The advent of the telephone all started with the great Alexander Graham Bell when he invented the telephone in 1876. Bell was originally born in Scotland, surrounded by his father being a speech elocution professor, and his mother who was deaf, though was a skilled pianist (History.com Editors, 2009). He came to the United States in an effort to help the deaf, because it was personal to him, whereas “he opened the School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston” (History.com Editors, 2009, para. 8). It became even more personal to him as he found love with one of the school’s students (History.com Editors, 2009). As Bell was immersed in technology, he tried to advance the telegraph by trying to send multiple messages at once through the same wire (History.com Editors, 2009). In 1875, him and Thomas Watson teamed up to develop a device turning electrical signals/currents into sound, thus inching closer to him placing his patent on the telephone (History.com Editors, 2009). Likely an unknown fact is that other scientists by the names of Antonio Meucci and Elisha Gray were on a very similar path as Bell towards developing a telephone-like technology, but Bell was ultimately the man to secure his patent and forever be credited for telecommunications (History.com Editors, 2009). On March 7, 1876, Bell and Watson put together the “first-ever telephone call” that took place, where Bell famously said “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” (History.com Editors, 2009, para. 13). He then would go on to create the Bell Telephone Company, now being the large company that is AT&T today (History.com Editors, 2009).

Furthering the Telephone’s Capabilities

The telephone would undergo further development in the years ahead, whereas infrastructure and equipment developments were made. In 1915, Bell and Watson connected on the first cross-country telephone call from San Francisco to New York (History.com Editors, 2009). This would be a remarkable achievement for the telephone and telecommunications going forth, as “long distance calling” became possible (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d.). In 1927, the first international telephone calls began, allowing people to call each other between the United States and England, but at a hefty cost – about three dollars a minute (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d.). Other international calling was developed, such as radio telephone technology, allowing for calls to be placed across the Pacific Ocean between the United States and Japan (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d.).

Progressing Towards Mobile Telecommunications

In 1880, as Bell was steadfast about improving his invention, he created the photophone, something that “was capable of sending sound on a beam of light” (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d., para. 1880 section). This creation of his began the path towards wireless calling, as he was able to make a call via his findings (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d.). However, a path towards the concept of the mobile phone was still years ahead. One of the first mainstream telephones that was not the landline was the car phone. The rise of the car phone started in 1946, when the first phone call made from a car phone happened (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d.). It was not widely available due to the high costs of it, just as all other technologies found themselves being expensive immediately following their respective births. Nevertheless, it would develop, and develop it did, because the car phone became very successful throughout the 1950s to the 1990s, as the mobile phone began to take over the game (The News Wheel, 2019). During that period of time, however, mobile phone networks were being developed in moves towards the eventual advent of the cellular phone.

The First Mobile Phone Call, Motorola’s Contributions

In 1973, the “first [true] cellular mobile call” took place on a phone that was…quite a start to say the least (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d.). It took place on one of the first renditions of a cellular/mobile phone, whereas that device allowed for 30 minutes of talking but took a year to recharge (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d.). By 1977, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was on board with furthering mobile telephone networks, allowing for the dawn of cellular/mobile phones (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d.). In 1981, “the first automated commercial cellular network” called 1G launched in Japan, paving the way towards developing a world with cellular capabilities. The concept of “1G” is the same concept that modern society has seen in the likes of “2G,” “3G,” “4G,” “4G LTE,” and “5G.” This led to the development of the famous Motorola DynaTac 8000X in 1984, which fell into place when the United States allowed for their own 1G to be developed (“From 1G to 5G…,” n.d.). As Motorola’s creation was a very large device, ironically enough, they made the “lightest cellular device on the market” called the MicroTac, just 8 years later (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d., 1989 section).

How Text Messaging Started

While the 1980s saw developments of mobile phone technology, the 1990s and beyond would start to see developments in what society has known as mobile phones ever since. This started in 1992, the year that saw the first ever text message sent (“The History of the Telephone,” n.d.). The concept of the text message has had to piggy back off of a technology called SMS (short messaging service), in which was developed in 1984, but was not quite developed to send text messages at first (Erickson, 2012). SMS was actually the backbone of voicemails, instead, but found its way towards being the technology that handled text messaging, too (Erickson, 2012). In 1992, when the first text message took place, it was not typed on a phone, instead on a computer, because no mobile phone had a keyboard on it until Nokia made its 9000i Communicator in 1997 (Erickson, 2012). That being said, text messages did not get off to a roaring start. The technology had to be improved upon, whereas the dawn of the 21st Century saw text messaging become much more commonplace (Erickson, 2012). Many mobile phones at the time that had text messaging capabilities were very difficult to type on, as many phones had “multi-tap” keyboards on them, being the style of each number corresponding to three different letters (Erickson, 2012). However, mobile phones would undergo further advancements and become so crucial to society throughout the 21st Century.

2000 and Beyond: Advancements of Mobile Phones, The Rise of the Smartphone

The turn of the century would go on to allow for many advancements to be made to mobile phones and completely shakeup the concept of the telephone, because it started to become something much more than just calling. To improve on text messaging, cell phone makers decided to get creative with phone designs. Notable phones like the Nokia, T-Mobile Sidekick, and Blackberry stepped on the scene, all being in the early 2000s (Dryoff, 2018). Samsung decided to create a phone with a complete touch screen, which led to what we know and embrace today in cell phones (Dryoff, 2018). Right after, cameras being placed on phones became more commonplace too, although already being released in Japan years prior. This came with Sprint and Sanyo’s partnership on a newly developed camera phone in 2002 (Dryoff, 2018). Other prominent cell phones included the Motorola RAZR and the Blackberry smartphone, two icons of the early 2000s and beyond, up until the powerhouse of Apple led by the late great Steve Jobs released one of their great creations in the iPhone (Dryoff, 2018).

Today’s Mobile Phone Technology, Looking Ahead

Eventually, Apple and Samsung would become the industry leaders in smartphones, as they are the two direct competitors in the smartphone space today. As of October/November 2020, a billion people worldwide are iPhone users (Cybart, 2020). Currently, smartphones are a true swiss army knife because they can do so many things. On top of calling and texting, there are now capabilities to do video call, surf the web, send emails, stream videos, listen to music, play games, and so much more, from just about anywhere, all features that most of us have right in our pockets. Thanks to further developments to networks such as 4G LTE and 5G by cellular companies through the years, we enjoy a more connected world, at much faster speeds than ever thought of before, something probably no one anticipated during the initial push towards developing mobile phones. These communication technologies make our lives much easier today, but they can also have their cons as well, which is another story for another time.


Cybart, N. (2020, October 26). A Billion iPhone Users. Above Avalon. https://www.aboveavalon.com/notes/2020/10/26/a-billion-iphone-users.

Dynatac Cellular Telephone. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute. (n.d.). https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1191361.

Dyroff, C. (2018, July 25). Here's how much cellphones have actually changed over the years. Insider. https://www.insider.com/the-history-of-the-cellphone-2018-7#the-iphone-4-changed-everything-10.

Erickson, C. (2012, September 21). A Brief History of Text Messaging. Mashable. https://mashable.com/2012/09/21/text-messaging-history/.

From 1G to 5G: A Brief History of the Evolution of Mobile Standards. Brainbridge. (n.d.). https://www.brainbridge.be/news/from-1g-to-5g-a-brief-history-of-the-evolution-of-mobile-standards.

The History of the Telephone. Mitel. (n.d.). https://www.mitel.com/articles/history-telephone.

History.com Editors. (2009, November 9). Alexander Graham Bell. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/alexander-graham-bell.

The News Wheel. (2019, May 8). History of the Car Phone. The News Wheel. https://thenewswheel.com/history-of-the-car-phone/.

Wolpin, S. (2014, March 13). The First Cellphone Went on Sale 30 Years Ago for $4,000. Mashable. https://mashable.com/2014/03/13/first-cellphone-on-sale/.


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