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Time to phone home: 40 years of the mobile phone

CNME Assistant Editor, Joe Lipscombe

I love a little technology nostalgia – it reminds me of what a fantastic era I grew up in. As a kid, I was constantly being shown new innovations and gadgets which would light up, make noises and generally be more complicated than my Batman comic books.

When I was very young, my father was an engineer for British Telecom, and one day he brought home a yellow box, roughly the size of a VHS player, with a little handle on top. Upon opening the box, he revealed a telephone – a telephone in a box.

This was the first phone I ever saw which wasn’t plugged into a wall, I was fascinated. I would pick up the receiver and make pretend calls all the time (mostly to the Batcave) – I loved it. Years and years later, we all have iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Samsungs, of course. However, we still have that lunchbox phone in our attic somewhere, gathering dust. It’s a reminder of how far the technology has come in such a short space of time.

This week celebrates 40 years of the mobile phone. “I’m ringing you just to see if my call sounds good at your end,” was the first line passed through a mobile phone, by Motorola employee Martin Cooper, in 1973.

That was on a very large model, described usually as a ‘brick’, with an aerial the size of a flag pole. Not anymore, now we’re in the era of the smartphone, the era of mobility. It’s not an innovation to excite the nerds anymore (though it certainly still does that) – now it’s a critical business tool. The worldwide telecoms industry’s yearly revenue is over £800bn – that’s not a gimmick.

Mobile technology is now affordable to all, available to all, relevant to all, and useful to all. I can’t even imagine meeting someone who doesn’t own at least one mobile device – it’s like an extra limb.

However, it was thinking of this technological triumph that caused me to take a little trip down memory lane.

As I mentioned earlier – I was rather lucky to be born around a time when mobile devices were gaining momentum and I grew up as a curious little rascal watching these machines gets more intelligent, more eloquent, more sophisticated and more concise. Then, when I was finally old enough, I was allowed to have my first mobile phone.

I was in the 8th grade of my high school years, back in the UK, which would have made me around 13-years-old. I was given a hand-me-down Nokia 5165. It was blue on the front, black on the back, and topped off with an inconvenient aerial. But I loved that phone for a few reasons. The main reason was that this particular phone, and a fair few models following it, was absolutely indestructible. I could launch this thing into the air, watch it hit the ground, explode into several pieces, screen going one way, wobbly rubber keypad going another, and then easily reconstruct the thing right there. This was obviously the biggest attraction for a 13-year-old child who had slightly less important calls to make back then as he does now.

Following that, I naturally stayed with Nokia, taking a 3210 (in lime green), then a 3310 (in a more manly grey), and then a 3330 (the whole time getting better and better at the highly loveable ‘Snake’ franchise – the day he could go through walls blew my mind).

The Nokia 3210 – lime green and complete with Snake 1

It was then, in my final year at school, when my father, still working at British Telecom, though no longer an engineer, told me that the company was purchasing new mobile phones, with colour, and flip screens. This was the company’s first mobile policy, I guess. This was an early model of the Motorola VE465, I believe, and he allowed me to have it. I was so excited, I took it to school every day. I took heaps of ridiculous images of boring things which I never looked at again, but I was modern, and I was a flip phone owner. I was technology royalty, the envy of all my little cronies.

So who would have thought that only a short time later I would turn my nose up at this model – now, I wouldn’t be caught dead with that thing against my ear (though, now I’ve said that, don’t put it past my friends to make that happen).

The speed of growth and innovation in mobile devices has been absolutely sensational, and with tablets and phablets now beginning to really put a stamp on the market, it won’t be long until we turn our noses up at the current offerings.

I can’t wait to write a similar article to this in ten years time.

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