Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cellphone's inventor a north-end boy

Pioneer's huge feat a well-kept secret

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ONE day in the early 1930s, a young Jewish lad from a poor immigrant family in Winnipeg's north end was watching older boys light paper on fire with sunlight focused through a magnifying glass.

"I went and broke my own bottle and tried to get the sun to burn a piece of paper," Marty Cooper recalls. "I always wanted to know how things worked."

Four decades later, in 1973, Cooper stood on a Manhattan street and made the world's first call on a cellular phone that he and his team at Motorola had just invented.

Now 74, Cooper is engaged in a new visionary project -- making Internet access as easy as cellphone calls -- and regrets not making it to Winnipeg this weekend for the 90th reunion of the I.L. Peretz Folk School, where he learned to read.

Cooper read everything he could get his hands on as a child. A library is the centrepiece of his California beach home.

"I've always had a very good feeling about the culture that I grew up in. A lot of it has to do with the reverence for knowledge and books."

The former Motorola vice-president's connection to Winnipeg is not widely known -- there's no reference to him in the Free Press archives.

Cooper's cousin, retired Winnipeg chemist Ed Bass, has always bragged about being related to a man who revolutionized communication.

"I don't think anybody believed us," said Bass.

This weekend, alumni of the folk school started by politically radical Jews are celebrating numerous illustrious careers nurtured by the school's caring and inspired teachers.

San Francisco opera singer Norm Mittleman will be among those performing at tonight's gala concert at Pantages Theatre.

The school was part of the hard-working north end immigrant culture that produced the likes of television game show legend Monty Hall, comedian David Steinberg and atomic bomb physicist Louis Slotin.

Cooper said he believes extremes of weather stimulate people intellectually. "You grow because you're stressed. Even today, I run and I still read voraciously, so I'm always stressing both my body and mind."

Bass remembers his younger cousin, whom he visits every year in California, was a cute child with blond, curly hair and a velvet suit. "He looked like an angel, but he was a little devil," Bass said. "He was dynamite -- the most active, lovable, mischievous little guy you could ever see."

Even now, Cooper is "the most charismatic man I have ever known," Bass said.

Cooper's maternal grandfather, a Russian butcher, brought his family to Winnipeg in 1920. The inventor's father ran a grocery store -- at Redwood Avenue and Charles Street -- that was torn down a few years ago.

Winnipeg was a city with horse-drawn delivery wagons pulling their goods on sleds along ice-covered streets in Cooper's day.

He last visited Winnipeg about five years ago and walked through his old haunts. The city doesn't change nearly as much as other places he has lived, said Cooper, who moved to Chicago when he was about six.

Cooper helped pay for his electrical engineering studies with stints in the U.S. navy.

He pulled together the team at Motorola that found a way to stuff enough electronics to run a cellphone into a box weighing a kilogram. That first call from Manhattan was a gloating one to his competitor at Bell.

Cooper is proud of the way cellphones have increased productivity and freed people from being chained to their desks or homes, but he did not think they would be adopted so quickly. At the same time, he believes the dream has not yet been realized because cell service is still less reliable than wired phones -- he called the Free Press on a land line.

Motorola has sold more than $80 billion of products Cooper introduced, but he turned over his patents for $1.

"You don't do these things for money. You do them for the satisfaction and the feeling you get when you know you've done something right."

Cooper has no complaints as he talks from his ski retreat in Colorado. He left Motorola at 55 with a generous retirement package and went on to form his own companies.

First, he cornered the market on cellphone billing systems, and now his ArrayComm company is working to improve the quality of cell transmission.

Watch for the company's iBURST to start rolling out next year -- affordable high-speed Internet access on any notebook computer without plugging in.

"It's going to affect your life," he said.

Cooper does not go for gimmicks on his own cellphone -- he just looks for the smallest, lightest one he can find with the longest battery life. His phone is always programmed to vibrate instead of ring, but he still gets blamed for the rude interruptions for which his invention is infamous.

Cooper is not a fan of trying to build everything into one product, but expects people will eventually own a series of high-tech gadgets.

Digital cameras will have a button that will allow images to be instantly transmitted anywhere in the world, he believes.

Originally considered a rich man's toy, cellphones are now opening up phone access in developing countries with few land lines. It's a fitting achievement for a boy from the north end who grew up knowing what it was like to be hungry.

This year Cooper plans to pull back from the operation of ArrayComm while staying involved in the creative aspects. That will free up more time to enjoy his grandchildren, but one of his ambitions is to relearn the language of his grandparents that the Yiddish Peretz school was set up to preserve.

helen.fallding@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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