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Inventor of Mobile Phone Talks Texting, Future of Communication

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Aired 8/18/09

How have cell phones changed our lives? Inventor of the mobile phone, and purveyor of portability, Marty Cooper is still at it. We'll find out what the "father of the mobile phone" thinks about texting, and how he thinks we can improve wireless communications.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. In April of 1973, Martin Cooper did something nobody had ever done before. He walked down the street making a call on a hand held cell phone. In doing so, inventor Martin Cooper helped usher in a whole new world of wireless communication. Even though in the past 35 years or so we've seen an incredible expansion of wireless, the technology is still very young. Martin Cooper's career has taken him from Motorola's Communications Division to his own tech company, and he has learned first hand what makes technology sell and where the potential is. For instance, though it may be hard to believe, people didn't take to the idea of cell phones right away. So Cooper still works to spread the word about the promise of wireless technology. The next big thing in wireless may just be its application in healthcare, and that's where this 'father of the cell phone' is spending most of his efforts today. It's my pleasure to welcome inventor Martin Cooper, chair of Dyna LLC, CEO and founder of ArrayCom, Inc. Martin, welcome to These Days.

MARTIN COOPER (CEO and Founder, ArrayCom, Inc.): Thank you for having me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we'd like to invite listeners to join the conversation. When did you make your first cell phone call? What did the phone look like? What would you like to see as the next big breakthrough in cellular communication? Give us a call with your questions or your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. So, as I say, on April 3rd, 1973, you made the world's first handheld phone call in public. Where were you when you made that call?

COOPER: We were on the streets of New York. We were surrounded by the typically sophisticated New Yorkers but remember, Maureen, this is a time when there were no cordless phones, there were no, certainly, no cell phones. And it was quite astounding to see how people were gaping at us, watching somebody pushing buttons and making a phone call. So it was an unusual experience.

CAVANAUGH: Did people think you were maybe just pretending? I mean, did they really have to hear the other end of the line to make sure that you were speaking to somebody?

COOPER: Yeah, I suppose they did but I was impressed. When I got to New York people just ignore me normally and this way I had them paying attention to me.

CAVANAUGH: Now who did you call?

COOPER: Well, the situation at that time was that we were – this is Motorola that I worked for, as you mentioned, and the people that invented cellular technology were AT&T. This is a real David and Goliath story because AT&T was the biggest company in the world and their view was they knew how to do everything, no one else could do it. And so their vision was a monopoly and their vision was car telephones. Can you imagine? And here we were, this little company in Chicago and we believed in competition and we believed that the world was ready for personal communications, that people are just inherently, they're fundamentally mobile. They want to move around. They don't want to be trapped in their car. That's no better than being stuck at your desk or in your home. So we took on AT&T and the guy that ran AT&T's program was a neat guy named Joel Engle, so I called Dr. Engle and I said, Joel, I'm calling you from a cellular telephone but a real cellular telephone, a hand held cellular telephone. And there was a silence at the other end of the line. I suspect he was gnashing his teeth, but he was very polite to me. To this day, Joel believes that we were a gnat on an elephant, that we really were an annoyance. But the fact is, Maureen, the people have personal, portable cellular telephones today, and very likely it would have taken ten years longer if we had let AT&T have their way.

CAVANAUGH: Describe to us what this prototype phone looked like.

COOPER: Well, by today's standards it was huge. I mean, it weighed two and a half pounds. It was ten inches high, four inches deep and an inch and a half wide, and it talked for 20 minutes before the battery died, which was, of course, not a problem because you couldn't hold it up for more than 20 minutes.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I've done some reading about you and the advent of cell phone technology and some of the roots seem to go back to the inspiration from science fiction or pop culture. Do you – Is that where you got your inspiration? Or was it from somewhere else?

COOPER: Well, of course, there's always the Dick Tracy wrist radio story and the Star Trek flip phone. The bottom line is, we learned this thing from the consumer. We found out that in the early days that there were businesses that just could not operate, they could not function, without two-way radios in their cars. But there were other businesses that didn't have cars. So you couldn't run an airport operation without a handheld phone. And then Orlando Wilson, who was the Superintendent of Police in Chicago, came to us and said, we want our policemen to be on the beats among the people. They're stuck in their cars now. Can you get them to have a personal device that will let them go on the beat and still be in communication? So we did that. We built them such a phone. So it is the marketplace that taught us this fundamental mantra that I repeat much too often and that is that people are basically mobile. They're fundamental – They want to move around. You just look at the traffic around the city and you know, nobody is where they want to be. Everybody's going somewhere else, and they want to be in communications all the time.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Martin Cooper and we're talking about his contribution to the development of the cell phone. And we're taking your calls with your questions and comments, 1-888-895-5727. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the culture at Motorola when you were working there. That must have been a very exciting time to be working and developing these devices.

COOPER: Oh, it really was because we were a little company. Our competitors, the two-way radio businesses, were RCA, which was a huge company at that time, and General Electric, so we understood the significance of competition. You're always scared. You're always running hard, and you're always paranoid. And so I really learned what the nature of competitive business is there and that's why I, to this day, I just love it.

CAVANAUGH: Now from 1973 to the time when people could actually buy cell phones, there was sort of a long lead time. And I wonder how long did it actually take to actually reach the market?

COOPER: Well, it took 10 years just to do two things. One is, to allocate the radio channels because cellular, as you know, Maureen, works on radio, and the SEC had to allocate those channels, they had to decide who the operators were going to be, and that turned out to be a much bigger job than they ever anticipated. And the second issue is, it's one thing to conceive of these ideas, quite another to actually create the technology and there was a lot of technology that we had to create. So it actually took 10 years. In October of 1983, the first cellular system went on the air and that was in Chicago. In December, a system went on in Washington, and cellular was launched. But it took another 10 years before there was real penetration, before lots of people had – The first cell phones cost – a portable cost $4,000 if you could imagine in 1983 dollars, so not many people could afford it.

CAVANAUGH: That is unbelieve – I did read that. $4,000 for a cell phone in 1983. And so did it take a long time even though there was – there were all these things that you had to develop along the way to make this possible for people to even get one in their hands, were people resistant to the idea?

COOPER: Any new idea, Maureen, takes time. And most of the resistance was, you know, people didn't really know why they needed this phone. We had to actually fool people. We'd actually convince them that they should buy their cell phones so they could talk on the phone going to work. Well, if you think about it, a car telephone would do that very well. It turns out, once people had these phones in their hands they discovered the value of being able to talk anywhere and they taught themselves how to do this. But people are very conservative. Not many people realize that any new product that is going to change your habit may take 10 or 20 years to actually penetrate the marketplace.

CAVANAUGH: That is really quite an insight there because you're saying that people, when they're given a new piece of technology, really have to personally discover how they can use it.

COOPER: That's exactly right. You can't jam things down people's throat and that really was what the problem of the monopoly approach—and we don't have any monopoly in telecommunications anymore—but their view was that Bell Laboratories were brilliant people. They were going to decide what we wanted and they would give their brilliant ideas to the manufacturing company, which was Western Electric, and they would give it to the operating companies and they would say, Maureen, this is what you want. And that's not the way the competitive marketplace works. The right way to do it is the way we do it today, and we have a lot of entrepreneurs, marketing people, who try to understand what people want. They provide products to the marketplace but guess who makes the decisions? It's you makes the decision, the people…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COOPER: …make the decisions.

CAVANAUGH: Now you left Motorola and you developed your own company that had to do with how to bill for cellular, is that correct?

COOPER: Sure. Everybody was worried about getting their radio channels, marketing, and nobody thought about the business part of it. How do you keep track of your customers, how do you bill them, how do you assign them telephone numbers. And so my wife, Arlene Harris, and business partner, Russ Shields, and I formed a company, Cellular Business Systems, Inc. and we, in fact, did most of the cellular billing and management in the early years of cellular.

CAVANAUGH: And so that you needed the support system to – in order for the actual phone to take off and become the business it is today.

COOPER: Well, it was quite astounding. The first system that went on the air in Washington, there were people on the streets before the company providing the service had figured out how they were going to send a bill out. So the first month, we actually had a very fast typist typing each person's bill out individually. So people never think about those mundane things, they only think about the glamorous things about technology.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Martin Cooper, who some people call the 'father of the cell phone,' and we're talking about his invention, his collaborative invention of the cell phone and how cellular technology has caught on among the public and to the fact where we all have cell phones now, we're all texting all the time. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to get involved in our conversation. And that's something that I read that you really didn't see coming is the texting part of this.

COOPER: Well, that is – Certainly the major application today is still talking after 30 years. People use their cell phone primarily for talking. Texting is not very new. We had paging for many, many years and I made a contribution in that industry as well. So it's not really what you'd call a major advance but it does provide a service. You know, I believe that we're only beginning the revolution that's going to happen when we really understand the value of personal communications. And when we get the cost of personal communications down to where it ought to be and where the coverage is widespread, we're going to revolutionize a whole bunch of things, including social interaction and the biggest one, as you mentioned earlier, is health services. I guess you've been talking about that for the last hour or so. There is going to be a revolution in healthcare that's going to be based upon the fact that people can be accessed, can be connected all the time.

CAVANAUGH: In fact, you have sort of announced a sort – coined a sort of Cooper's Law as something that has to do with the way we use the radio spectrum and the future of the radio spectrum. Tell us about Cooper's Law.

COOPER: Well, I really didn't name it that but it is…

CAVANAUGH: It's been coined that.

COOPER: It is the law of spectrum and it only says that whether it's because of technology, because we're learning new things, we have improved the way we can use radio channels better over the years to the extent that we double the number of conversations that we can hold on a radio channel every two and a half years and we've done that for 100 years. So we're now a trillion times better than we were 100 years ago. And we're going to keep doing that and what does that mean? It means that the cost is going to go down exactly in the inverse. And that's really important because if we're going to have you connected all the time, doing things that even ten cents a minute is not going to be practical.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COOPER: And if we can halve that cost every few years, as we are going to do, the cost of being connected is going to be trivial. Now we can really start looking at some creative applications.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I want to talk about the new things that you see on the horizon including the medical applications of wireless and cellular but I do want to ask you, because we don't normally get a chance to speak with someone who is so instrumental in bringing such a transformative technology into our lives, I wonder how you feel when you look at cell phones now? Everybody has one, everybody's using them all the time. How do you feel about that? What – Does that make you feel happy?

COOPER: Well, I'm not particularly enamored of the – of a physical gadget, of a machine, but I am thrilled at what the cellular technology has done for people because it has made us much more productive. I think it's made us happier. It educates us, it entertains us. The potential for doing a lot more of that is on there, so the bottom line, Maureen, is I feel pretty good about what has happened with cellular technology over the past years.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Martin Cooper and the number's 1-888-895-5727 and I want to speak to you about the future as you see this technology advancing. I know that you're very involved in the future of how medicine might be influenced by cellular technology and healthcare in general. Tell me what you're working on and what you see.

COOPER: Well, you gave me a very good way of expressing it in your last hour because you and your interviewees were talking about the healthcare system being broken. And the healthcare system's all designed about curing disease but what are we doing about keeping from – keep people from getting disease in the first place? Prevention really ought to be – or anticipation ought to be the real thrust, and it turns out we know all kinds of ways. If we could only know what's going on in your body, of anticipating when you're going to get sick and providing advice to you or things that you can do to keep that from happening. For example, there is an issue with congestive heart failure. The doctors tell us that if they know how much fluid is in your body, they can tell you two hours before you have a heart attack that that is imminent and can tell you exactly how to keep it from happening. Well, just think of that. If we could stop people, you know, from having heart attacks what that would do to the cost of the healthcare system. And how do you do that? Very easy to measure all kinds of things on the human body, including how much liquid is in your body, your heart rate, your sugar levels, so the only issue is how do we keep you connected. And it turns out that that's technologically very, very simple. All that technology exists today. You may have to put a patch on your body when you get up in the morning and maybe you would put an earring…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

COOPER: …on your ear or a ring on your finger or your wristwatch might do it. But you would be connected and some monster computer somewhere, of which you are totally unaware and you don’t have to even know about it, will know what's going on in your body all the time and will anticipate these things. And guess what? We can anticipate the onset of diabetes by ten years. We can tell you – we can tell someone your eating habits are such that you're going to be very sick in ten years; you ought to change your habits in such and such a way. So – And many, many other similar kinds of things that will prevent disease so we don't have to spend a lot of money curing it.

CAVANAUGH: Could we transmit that information with the existing cellular network that we have now?

COOPER: Oh, you could but there are just two problems. One, we talked before and we talk about the law of spectral efficiency. It just costs too much today to have you connected all the time. But that's going to get solved, there's just no question about that. And we do have to improve coverage so that you can be connected virtually everywhere and we haven't totally solved that problem today…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COOPER: …but there are new generations of technology coming into play and that problem's going to get solved.

CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating because what you're talking about now might sound as foreign to people as a handheld cell phone sounded in the 1970s and yet what you're saying is all we need to do is fix – and – a couple of things in our existing technology in order to make what you're talking about possible.

COOPER: That's really the wonderful thing about it. If we – The answers are all there. What we have to do is integrate all this knowledge that the doctors have about what it is that makes us function and with this cellular technology to keep us connected along with the internet…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

COOPER: …that gives us access to all this knowledge and put it all together and that's how we're going to solve this healthcare problem. And not by having the government do it so I thought I'd get that…

CAVANAUGH: You're allowed. Let's take a caller. Ron is calling from Del Mar. Good morning, Ron. Welcome to These Days.

RON (Caller, Del Mar): Good morning. I was – I think eventually satellite phones will replace cell phones and I was wondering how soon do you think this will happen?

COOPER: No, I'm afraid that that's not the answer. The reason that cell phones work so well is that we have a lot of small cells and we can use these radio channels over and over again in a city. And when you have a satellite, the coverage of a satellite in general is large areas. It's very hard to focus energy in a very small area and so satellites are very inefficient from the standpoint of using radio channels. That doesn't mean that satellites don't have some important functions. Very hard to get service in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, you know, from a cell site but there – the lowest cost, and you notice I've mentioned that several times, Ron, the lowest cost way of getting cellular communications is to have a station relatively close to you that you can communicate with.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Ron, for that call. And we're up against the clock and so, Martin, I wanted to ask you finally, you have mentioned several times the cost of cellular communications, cell phones, and also the fact that perhaps the quality is not consistent with landlines. Are those the area that you see that people still need to work on when it comes to cell phone communication?

COOPER: Sure. There's absolutely no reason why a cell phone shouldn't be lower in cost than wired communications and more reliable. I mean, think about a backhoe. They're digging holes in front of your station here and somebody digs up a wire. Well, you can't break the wireless wire and so it ought to be lower in cost, and that's going to happen. That's all inevitable. The problems that we've got to solve are the human problems. We've got to make the gadgets much more simple and much more prevalent.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. I really appreciate it

COOPER: My great pleasure, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with inventor Martin Cooper who is chair of Dyna LLC, CEO and founder of ArrayComm, Inc. And stay with us because coming up we'll continue talking about new technologies and how they are revolutionizing the field of education. You can post your comments online at KPBS.org/TheseDays. We'll be back in just a few minutes.

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