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The first true mobiles

Cellnet

First mobile phone services (1979)

It could be argued to be truly mobile a telephone has to be handheld and work anywhere. That being the case, then Japan had the first mobile system when it introduced the world's first cellular telephone network in 1979.

It wasn't until 1983 - nearly four years later - that Ameritech opened a similar service in Chicago, using Bell's Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS). It took until 1985 for cellular mobile phones to reach the UK, using a different system called TACS (Total Access Communication System).

All of the networks at this time were analogue which lacked the quality and noise free connections enjoyed by users of today's digital networks.

Cellnet coverage from '87

Expanding the networks (1985)

When you switch on your mobile today you assume there will be service in most places. Indoors or outdoors, in the city and in much of the country, you take coverage for granted. This was not always the case, in fact when Cellnet opened for business in 1985 it had just one base station, sited on top of the BT Tower in London, covering the whole Greater London area.

Expansion was rapid and in response the conditions of their licenses to provide service to 90 per cent of the population Vodafone and Cellnet soon provided coverage in all major cities and along the main motorway routes.

Unlike today, roaming stopped at the channel as the technology wasn't compatible with other countries and neither were agreements in place. The world had to wait for the digital GSM (Global System for Mobiles or formally Groupe Spécial Mobile) and what became known as the 2G network before taking a mobile abroad was possible.

Early hand-held cellphone - a Connected Earth artefact, now in the National Museums of Scotland collection

First generation design

The early hand held mobiles were a must have accessory for the business user and keen earlier adopters with money to spare as handset sold for around £1500. Battery life gave around 30 minutes of talk time and the network offered patchy coverage around tall buildings.

For those on the move in more rural places transportable mobile phones provided more output power to contact distant base stations but came with the penalty of large and heavy lead-acid batteries.

Both types were a far cry from today's internet connected, multimedia messaging and camera enabled devices of today. Such improvements are mainly possible due to a greater number of base stations, digital signal processing needing less power than analogue and better battery technology.

An example of an early transportable cell phone (1980s)

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Early transportable cell phone (1980s)

This model was typical of the day having a massive battery, in this case the bottom third of the base. The handle made it easier to lug the heavy unit around. Being so heavy it was impractical to hold it to your head making it necessary to separate the handset from the rest of the electronics and connecting them by a curly cord.

With some models it was possible plug the transmitter/receiver, minus the battery, into a docking station in the boot of a car and then connect the handset to a cradle near the driver's seat. This made the phone back into an old style carphone powered from the car's battery, though often with the added advantage of hands free working. It also allowed for the provision of an external aerial mounted on the top of the car.

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