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The origins of mobile

Publicity for London Radiophone Service, 1967

Early car phones

Many people believe that the mobile was first introduced during the 1980s. Though the heady days of the yuppie era did see many business people lugging around large mobile phones, the first mobile was actually introduced, for use in cars, in the UK in 1959. Before then emergency services and businesses had used radio to call between their base station and their vehicle fleet but it wasn't possible to call between mobiles. Furthermore, connection to the public telephone system wasn't allowed.

South Lancashire was chosen by the Post Office as the trial location for the first mobile system. It gave a limited service as there were only two speech channels allocated to each of the two base stations. A call that was started on one channel would drop out if the user travelled out of range of the base station, even if he moved into the other base station's catchment area there was no hand-over of the call we take for granted on cellular systems of today. It wasn't too convenient to make calls either, as they were connected by a telephone operator rather than the user dialling the number. Even more frustrating was the need to continuously listen out for the telephone operator announcing an incoming call on a channel shared by all users. The limited bandwidth allocated to the system meant the radio could only carry speech in one direction at a time so the mobile user had to press a button to talk and release it to listen.

Prince Phillip with prototype radiophone, Dollis Hill, 1952

Cellular telephones

Though, the car phone network did expand from its launch in South Lancashire to cover London and the major population areas of the UK its capacity to handle calls and hence cost prevented it growing beyond the realms of business or wealth users.

A way of allowing more callers to use the scarce radio bandwidth was needed. Indeed, the principles had been thought about from the 1940s whereby the same radio channel could be used on simultaneous calls provided they were physically kept apart. The idea was to divide the country into small areas called cells each having its own base station and each cell having its own set of radio channels that were different from any adjacent cell. It did, however, mean that as a mobile travelled from one cell to another sophisticated switching of the call between radio channels and base stations was needed.

Much of the work on cellular telephones was carried out in the USA and even with technological constrains AT&T considered in 1947 it worthwhile suggesting to the US regulator the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), that sufficient radio bandwidth was allocated for a cellular network. The FCC's reluctance to do so likely set the development of mobile communications back a number of years.

By 1977 AT&T and Bell Labs had constructed a prototype cellular system. A year later, public trials of the new system started in Chicago, USA with over 2,000 test customers. In 1981 Motorola and American Radio Telephone started a second test in the Washington/Baltimore area. By 1982 the FCC finally authorised commercial cellular services in the USA. Not surprisingly other countries were pursuing the idea of a cellular system and Japan led the way with its network that opened in 1979 and covered the Tokyo area. The UK followed in 1985 when licenses were granted to Cellnet and Vodafone.

Interestingly, the cellular system is still in use on today's mobile networks and though in the UK the term cellphone gave way to the 'mobile' the USA has continued to refer to them as as cellphones.

Telecom Steel' cellphone - a Connected Earth artefact, now at the Amberley Museum

Handheld and Truly Mobile (1973)

Though early mobile systems did allow people to make calls on the move it largely meant that they were tied to a vehicle. Even in the mid 1980's, the Post Office's System 4 mobile network, used telephones that were only small enough to fit inside a brief case and then had to be powered from a car's cigarette lighter socket.

The problem of portability was that the power required by the mobile phone to reach the few base stations was high and this would have quickly drained any portable battery of the day. Early batteries, of any capacity, were heavy and bulky so were not suitable for portable use. The cellular network with its multiple base stations requiring less power from the mobile phone coupled with improved battery technology opened the door to the true mobile phone.

Dr Martin Cooper, a former general manager for the systems division at Motorola, is considered the inventor of the first modern portable handset. Cooper made the first call on a portable cell phone to his rival, Joel Engel, head of research at Bell Laboratories.

In the UK early handheld mobile phones were mostly effective in urban areas were the network coverage was at its best. In more rural locations the distance to the base station required the mobile emit more power and so drain the battery more quickly. To overcome these difficulties transportable versions of mobiles were available which were much larger and had a high capacity battery. Some were no more than a carrying handle and battery pack that the transceiver and handset from the car version could be inserted.

Designer' Radio Pagers - Connected earth artefacts, now at the Amberley Museum

Radiopagers (1973)

The early 1970s saw the development of radio paging whereby a simple paging call or later a short message could be sent to a pager whilst it was on the move. A caller would call the radio paging operator and request that a page be sent. Later, in the case of simple pagers they could be dialed directly from the telephone network and message pagers could be accessed using a dial-up terminal without the help of an operator.

Surveys carried out by the Post Office in 1968 showed that the UK was ready for wide area radio paging. The first system was introduced in 1973, covering the Thames Valley. It was extended to London in 1976. By the end of the 1970s, most of Britain was covered by several networks.

Originally aimed at the business market towards the end of the pagers heyday the Post Office released stylish pagers by Swatch and the United Colors of Benetton. These did little to stave off the demise of the pager in the late 1990s. Though the development of the mobile telephones was largely separate from pagers they certainly played a part in their downfall by offering two way voice communication and ultimately text messaging using the SMS service.

Phonepoint publicity material, 1990

Telepoint (c1992)

Telepoint is one of those rare technologies that came and went in less than a lifetime and in hindsight could be seen as wrong turn in the evolution of mobiles. Telepoint gave the public a limited sense of mobile communications in so far as they could make outgoing calls to landlines using a special cordless handset but only when located within 100 metres or so of a public base station. Base stations were located in busy areas of towns. A major limitation was that it wasn't possible to receive calls from landlines or other Telepoint users. Nor was it possible to roam between base stations while on a call.

An ingenious thing about the handset was that it could link to its own base station while at home and so doubled as both a cordless and mobile telephone. However, this did mean that while it was being used as a mobile telephone others in the house may not have had access to their landline.

The first Telepoint service was opened by Ferranti under the name of Zonephone in 1989. Three other companies followed: BT's Phonepoint, Mercury's Callpoint and Hutchin Whampoa's Rabbit. By 1994 all had ceased their service. Telepoint couldn't compete with the falling cost of cellular mobile phones with their true mobile facilities.

One feature that the Telepoint service offered that cellular mobile didn't was the experience of digital communications. The link to the base station from the handset used similar technology to today's cordless telephones giving a noise free connection, unlike the analogue cellular network of the 1980s.

A radiopager user : Malcolm Wright

Malcolm Wright, Malcolm Wright, born in 1953 grew up in the outskirts of London before moving to Cornwall aged 14. He settled in Weymouth where he became a Coastguard & Teacher.

When he joined the coastguard the telephone equipment was very old and he tells how the service upgraded to state of the art technology and how this brought about a change in methods of communication for the lifeboat men and a newfound freedom.

audio clip


When I first joined the coast guard, which was in 1973, I remember how archaic their telephone system looked. It was perfectly functional but it was really very old. It was still the old kind of heavy Bakelite type phone, the black one, and in fact we used to have to ring through to Bracknell every hour with the met reports, the meteorological reports. In those days to ring the phone at their end you had to put your hand on this box and turn this handle rapidly, so it was almost something like out of Dad's Army. In those days we still used to fire the maroon. They then introduced first the radio pagers and they were a tremendous benefit but they were very heavy. They were about the size of the old fashioned kind of tobacco tins. We've now got BT pagers rather than radio pagers and they'll go off anywhere in the country, but also they've got the screen so that you can get a message on there and so you can be told what kind of incident, where they want you to go, and so on. I think professionally, as a coast guard it's new technology that's given me freedom. I can I can do what I want; I can go where I want and I know that people can get hold of me. My BT pager is used in school too so that the staff can get hold of me.

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