When I connect with Martin Cooper, he’s on a cell phone.
You could say it’s old hat for him — 40 years ago, on April 3, 1973, the former North Ender made the first ever public cellphone call with a two-pound clunker called the DynaTac.
Today, from his San Diego, Calif., home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the 84-year-old is on a much slimmer, more sophisticated Motorola Droid Razr M, one of three phones he carries on his belt to stay hip with rapidly-changing trends in wireless technology.
Cooper’s call — made on a cloudy day crossing Sixth Avenue in New York, back when he worked as a division manager for Motorola — has proved fortuitous.
Cooper was recently handed the 2013 Marconi Prize, named after radio inventor and Nobel Prize winner Guglielmo Marconi, netting a $100,000 cash award and work of sculpture recognizing his advancements in communications.
In February, the National Academy of Engineering awarded Cooper the Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered engineering’s highest honour.
In 1950, Cooper graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Following a short stint in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he found work at Motorola in 1954, where he eventually conceived the idea for a mobile phone. He was responsible for implementing a portable radio system for Chicago police in the late 1960s, a precursor to the cellular format.
Cooper has carved himself an entrepreneurial career in Silicon Valley, founding companies Arraycomm and Dyna LLC, both of which work at innovating cellular and mobile phone technology. He serves as a policy advisor to the U.S. federal government and serves on numerous committees and boards.
In an exclusive interview with The Times, Cooper reflected on his historic call, where cellphone technology is going and how the North End helped shaped his mind as an inventor.
The Times: It’s been a big year for you so far. Were you thinking this far ahead when you made that first call?
Cooper: Actually, no. When you’re doing a thing like that, you’re really thinking of the moment. The two things I was thinking about when I made that call was, most importantly, was the phone going to work? It was one of a kind and was an incredible achievement that my guys did that. To squeeze hundreds and hundreds of parts into this box. The second thing, the reason we built that phone is because we were competing with AT&T, who were the biggest company in the world, and who had invented cellular and who were trying to make cellular an AT&T monopoly using car telephones. We believed in competition, first of all. And second of all, we thought the time was ready for personal phones, phones you could carry with you and have the freedom to be anywhere. The way I approached it was to do was what I called a dazzling demonstration to get people’s attention. That’s why I was talking to a reporter to get the word out that there were other people who could do this thing beside AT &T and that, really, the right way to do it was with portables. We ended up winning, fortunately for everybody, I think.
Who did you make that first call to? How did the conversation go?
I called my counterpart at AT & T, a fellow named Dr. Joel Engel. I distinctly remember what I said to him, I repeated it a thousand times: "Joel, it’s Marty Cooper. I’m calling you from a cell phone, but a real cell phone, a personal, handheld portable cell phone." There was silence at the other end of the line. To this day, Joel does not remember that call, and if I were him, I guess I wouldn’t either. (laughs)
Do you still talk with Joel?
As a matter of fact, he was co-awardee of the Draper award a few weeks ago. I do talk to him.
What impact did that call have on your career?
Motorola really took very good care of me. It was just a step along the way. The call itself didn’t have that much significance. The fact we were working very hard not only with this demonstration, but in filings to the Federal Communications Commission. We worked very hard on this whole project and we ended up winning and that was what was important. Not too long after that phone call, I became corporate director of (Research and Development) for all of Motorola. Obviously all that effort didn’t hurt me at all.
You worked for 10 years after the call to get cell phones into the market. What has fuelled your interest in advancing radio and communications systems?
First of all, you think about the fact I joined Motorola in 1954 and was working in what was called the two way radio business. The essence of that business is two things: one, giving people the freedom to move around while they communicate. We started out with the police and fire departments and businesses and ultimately moved to consumers. The motivation was always the same: the recognition that people are fundamentally and inherently mobile. Anything that keeps them from doing that is not natural. That was a really important part of my training at Motorola.
And the second was, equally as important, and today more so, is that in order to do that, you have to use radio channels. That’s what all these are, are really different kinds of radios. Ultimately, there are only so many radio channels available, and the only way we can do all these things – cellular, TV, FM radio and a host of others, the radios they use to keep airplanes from crashing into each other, radars – all of these technologies share a limited number of radio channels. An important part of my life that last 50-60 years is how do you use radio spectrum efficiently? Between those two things, mobility and spectral efficiency, that’s about all I know. I’m a very narrow guy.
What’s been the biggest surprise for you in the advancement of cell phone technology?
There were two surprises. One is the very rapid adoption. It seems so obvious today, but you can’t imagine the people who told us back in 1973 and even until 1983 and later, that this was going to be a very limited market. There were only a few people in the world that could afford these things. I had a guy come in from London to talk to us in 1984 who said, "You know, you Americans are early adapters, but we think the market in London for cell phones is about 12,000." Today, there are probably 10-million cell phones in London. The second is nobody ever could have anticipated that you would put in a little box, that a consumer could buy, what was a supercomputer in the 1980s. It was just unimaginable. Just remember, in 1973, we had no digital cameras, no personal computers, no Internet. The thought of putting a billion transistors in a cell phone was ludicrous.
Where do you see communications technology in 40 years?
We’re still in the baby stages now. What you’re going to find is that your cell phone is really going to be part of your personality. You’re going to have a cell phone that does what you want it to do and in ways that are not intrusive. I think good technology is invisible and intuitive. You shouldn’t even know it’s there. What does the cell phone of the future look like? For talking, you could have some device behind your ear, or might even be embedded under your skin. It will have a very powerful computer in it and you will be able to talk to that computer and tell it who to call and you will be connected. You will carry a device on you that is what I call a communications server, but all that will do is connect devices on your body that do other things. As an example, we already know how to measure all kind of things on the human body. There is the potential to do a physical examination not every year or every five years, but every minute. If you can imagine that, if you can sense sensitively enough that a person is starting to get sick, you can treat that person and stop the sickness before it becomes a disease. It’s not hard to imagine 40 years from now, a society that is basically disease-free because these diseases have been intercepted. I could go on and on. There are all kinds of features that will become part of cell phones that will help us offload the more laborious things of life and let us focus on doing the things humans do well, like abstract thinking and creating.
In other interviews, you’ve said you carry three phones on your belt, and must stay current on everything. Do you ever find yourself away from a telephone, away from technology?
Well, every night I put my phone in the charger and go to sleep. Yes, there are times. When I go skiing, I may carry a phone, but it’s there for safety purposes. I’m not one of these guys that reads his email while he’s riding up on the chair lift. I do like to get away from technology. I still read a lot. Having said that, most of my reading is on computers or a Kindle or an iPad. But yes, I do like to get away from technology.
Do you own a landline? Will the landline ever die?
We do. When you think about it, what a cell phone has done is made phone calls to people personal calls. In the old days, when you called a telephone number, you were calling a place. When you’re calling a cell phone, you’re calling that person. There’s still a phone to a place, somebody that has a restaurant. They’re fixed anyway. And my house is fixed, so we keep one line going into the house, but most of the time we use cell phones. I don’t think the landline will die. The essence of this whole communication revolution is that everybody has to have one because all society ought to benefit. If that’s going to happen, things have to be minimum cost. So, one of the big challenges of the future is to get the cost of the phones and the service down much lower. Landline service to a lot of places will always be a lower in cost, so there’s always going to be (demand) for the landline. For personal communications, it’s almost gone today. I think we’re up now to between 25 and 30% of people have no landlines and a cellphone. Very few people have a landline and no cell phone.
You spent almost a decade growing up in the North End as a child. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you recall the area?
I’ve been back to Winnipeg several times in the last 10 years, but just about 10 years ago, maybe 12, they actually tore down the house and grocery store my folks had at Redwood and Charles. I remember that store very, very well. It had a little backyard and a minimal tree in it, but I built a tree house. I even remember the sidewalk, which probably hasn’t been replaced in the last 80 years or so. You know how sidewalks tend to be in Winnipeg or Chicago, they tend to crack and titled. I still remember that sidewalk. The ice on the streets in the winter and the fact people would flood their backyards and make skating rinks out of them. Lots of wonderful memories of Winnipeg.
How did the neighbourhood lend itself to your imagination?
I don’t know if the neighbourhood did, but somehow or another, from my earlier remembrances, I had this intense desire to know how everything worked. One recollection I have, and I couldn’t have been more than four or five years old, was watching some kids burning paper with a lens using the light of the sun. That just amazed me. I had to do it. I ended up breaking a Coke bottle and trying to use the bottom of the bottle so that I could burn paper too. I was unsuccessful, but that’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember, that I just need to know how things work. My mother talked about how I would take things a part and get them back together working again. I still do that. If I see something done in a special way, even taking cell phones apart, it’s fascinating to me to see how people solve technical problems.
Any final words for the young Martin Coopers out there still smashing Coke bottles open and taking things apart to see how they work?
There are a lot of things left to be invented. We need lots of curious people who will create these inventions. I would encourage people who have that intent to fulfill their dreams because there are a lot of dreams available to be fulfilled. The most important advice that I give anybody who goes into these things, is the only way you understand what it is that people want and need is to immerse yourself and put your mind into the minds of those people. If there’s anything I ever learned is that the purpose of technology is to make people’s lives better. Creating inventions for the sake of the invention is probably the most dangerous thing an engineer could do. It’s the people that count, not the technology.