The History of Mobile Phone Technology

Smartphones and feature phones are as common now as traditional landline phones were for decades. These handheld devices are so popular that many homes now only use mobile phones, increasingly pushing landline devices into the obsolete category. But while the popularity of mobile connectivity is vast today, it is still a very young technology when compared to its landline counterparts, which have been in existence since the mid-1800s.

To be clear, the history of the mobile phone focuses on devices that connect wirelessly to the public switched telephone network. And while it is a fairly young technology, its history can in fact be traced back more than a hundred years. Yet, the first mobile phones were barely portable compared to today’s definition of the term mobile technology.

Before the first truly mobile phones existed, there are some precursors to this technology that require mention, as they have undoubtedly led to the rise of the mobile phone as we know it today.


The first so-called claim of a wireless device came in 1908, when Prof. Albert Jahnke and the Oakland Transcontinental Aerial Telephone and Power Company said they had developed a wireless telephone. However, they were quickly accused of fraud and while the charge was later dropped, production of the device never ensued.

Ten years later, in 1918, the German railroad system tested its own wireless telephone system on military trains between Berlin and Zossen. By 1924, public trials began with telephone connection on trains between Berlin and Hamburg. A year later, in 1924, Zugtelephonie A.G. was founded to supply train telephony equipment with the first telephone systems being approved for use in postal and other trains by 1926.

By World War II, radio telephony was being implemented for military use, with hand-held radio transceivers being available since the 1940s. The first mobile telephones for automobiles also came out in the 1940s. These early devices, however, were bulky, heavy and consumed a lot of power. As well, the network for these devices only supported limited simultaneous conversations.


The first truly mobile phone service came to light on June 17, 1946 under Bell Labs, which developed mobile phones that allowed users to place and receive phone calls from their automobiles. Shortly thereafter, AT&T offered the first Mobile Telephone Service, but the technology was primitive and only offered limited coverage area with a few available channels in urban regions.

The later development of cellular technology would catapult mobile telephony into a new era, allowing for widespread adoption of mobile phones. This era was predicted by Arthur C. Clarke in a 1959 essay, where he envisioned a world where every person could make calls with their very own personal transceiver. In the essay, Clarke wrote: “The time will come when we will be able to call a person anywhere on Earth merely by dialing a number.” His vision also included a means for a global positioning system that would ensure that “no one need ever again be lost.” He later predicted the advent of such a device taking place in the 1980s.

Russian engineer Leonid Kupriyanovich developed a number of experimental mobile phone models between 1957 and 1961, with the last of the designs weighing less than three ounces and could fit easily in the palm of one’s hand, according to media sources of the time in USSR.

The first fully automated vehicular mobile phone system was unveiled in Sweden in 1956. Named MTA (Mobiltelefonisystem A), it allowed calls to be made and received using a rotary dial. These early car phones were primitive and consisted of bulky vacuum tubes and relays, weighing as much as 90 pounds. In 1962, MTB was unveiled. This system used push-button calling and improved operational reliability with transistors and DTMF signaling.

Other car phone systems were implemented around this time as well. USSR introduced the first mobile phone for motorists in 1958 and the first US car phones were introduced in 1959.

In 1965, a mobile automatic phone was unveiled by Bulgarian-based Radioelektronika, who presented the device at the Inforga-65 international exhibition in Moscow. The phone was based on the system developed by Kupriyanovich. The phone system worked with a base station, and one base station could provide service for up to 15 customers.

AT&T introduced the first major improvements to mobile telephony in 1965, giving its nearly two-decade old MTS system a new and improved name – Improved Mobile Telephone Service (IMTS). The new system utilized additional radio channels, allowing for more simultaneous calls in a given geographical region. The company also introduced customer dialing, eliminating a call to be manually placed by an operator, and also reduced the size and weight of the user equipment. Despite the capacity improvement, demand outpaced capacity. AT&T signed an agreement with state regulators to limit its service to just 40,000 customers. In NYC, 2,000 customers had to share just 12 radio channels and had to wait on average 30 minutes to place a call.

Some improvements were made in the late-1960s by independent telephone companies, introducing Radio Common Carrier service that paired UHF and VHF frequencies near those used by IMTS to improve capacity. This service was provided until the 1980s when cellular AMPS systems made RCC equipment obsolete.

Another expanding technology in phone mobility was the emergence of the satellite phone, which was first developed in 1979 for use on the high seas. That technology is now also useful on land in areas that are out of reach from landline, cellular and marine VHF radio stations. An updated Iridium satellite constellation system was set up beginning in 1998, and while the company behind the system went bankrupt, satellite telephony under that system is still available today.


Prior to 1973, mobile telephony was limited to phones installed in cars, trains and other vehicles. Motorola was the first company to produce a handheld mobile phone.

The first mobile phone call from a handheld device was made on April 3, 1973 by Martin Cooper, a research executive at Motorola to Joel S Engel of Bell Labs. That first handheld phone was 10 inches long and weighed about 2.5 pounds. The prototype offered 30 minutes of talk time on a single charge and took 10 hours to recharge. John F. Mitchell, Motorola’s chief of portable communications, successfully pushed Cooper and the Motorola team to develop wireless communication products that would become smaller and lighter and could be used anywhere. The Motorola team was also instrumental in the development and design of the cellular phone.

The first automatic analog cellular systems were deployed in Tokyo in 1979, later spreading throughout Japan. The system was available throughout Nordic countries by 1981. In North America, the first analog cellular system was widely deployed in the early-1980s, being rolled out in North America in October 1983. It was deployed in Israel in 1986 and Australia in 1987. This system was deployed as the Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS). While the system was much more advanced than the earlier technology, it was unencrypted and easily vulnerable to eavesdropping. It was also susceptible to cell phone cloning, and the system required significant amounts of wireless spectrum to support.


The first 1G (first generation) network was launched in the US on March 6, 1983 by Ameritech. It cost $100 million to develop and took a decade to reach the market. Phone talk time was limited to 30 minutes and the phones took 10 hours to charge. Despite the obvious issues, the system was in high demand with waiting lists for the system in the thousands.

The 2G network emerged in the 1990s with two systems competing for supremacy: the European GSM standard and the US-developed CDMA standard. The 2G network differed from the previous generation by using digital instead of analog transmissions and also fast out-of-band signaling. Mobile phone usage exploded in the 1990s with the onset of 2G connectivity. The advent of prepaid mobile phones also emerged during this era.

The 2G network also saw the emergence of a new variant in communication: SMS (text messaging). This technology was at first only available in GSM networks but eventually spread to all digital networks. The first machine-generate SMS message was sent in the UK on December 3, 1992 followed in 1993 by the first person-to-person SMS in Finland. The emergence of prepaid services saw a move of telephony into the hands of young people, and eventually to persons of all ages.

2G also introduced the ability to access media content on mobile phones, with the first downloadable content sold to mobile phones in 1998 – the first content available being ring tones. The first advertising on mobile phones followed shortly later in 2000, with an SMS-based headline service.

Also, the first mobile payments were trialed in 1998 in Finland and Sweden where a mobile phone was used to pay for a Coca Cola vending machine and car parking. The first commercial payments system to mimic credit cards was launched in the Philippines in 1999. The first mobile Internet service was launched in Japan in 1999.

As the 2G revolution became more widespread and people of all ages began to utilize phones in their daily lives, it became evident that demand for data was growing. This also meant that there would be a much greater demand for faster data transfers. Since 2G was not capable of handling this new era, 3G technology was unveiled in Japan in May 2001 to take on the task. The main technological difference between 2G and 3G was the use of packet switching in 3G rather than the circuit switching in 2G, which helped immensely with data transfer. With this, 3G speeds rose to 2 Mbps on average.

With the advent of 3G, competition in the market heated up with numerous companies vying for 3G space. The 2G CDMA networks were capable of transitioning to 3G to help ease some demand. With the high connection speeds of 3G technology, a transformation of the industry was at hand. For the first time, media streaming of radio and television content to 3G handsets became possible, with RealNetworks and Disney being among the early pioneers of 3G media streaming.

In the mid-2000s, 3G technology evolved into an enhanced high-speed telephony network, with new coining of the technology: 3.5G, 3G+ and turbo 3G, allowing for data transfer speeds skyrocketing up to 14 Mbps.

With the ever-increasing speeds of 3G, it was clear that the days of the traditional mobile phone/feature phone would be coming to an end. In 2007, Apple released its flagship iPhone, touted as one of the first mobile phones to use a multi-touch interface. With the concept of multi-touch displays, traditional keypads and keyboards would soon become obsolete and onscreen keypads would be the new norm.

By 2009, it was clear that, at some point, 3G networks would be overwhelmed by the growth of bandwidth-intensive applications. The industry soon focused on implementing 4G technologies, with the promise of delivering speed improvements up to 10-fold over existing 3G networks. The first 4G technologies were introduced in the US (WiMAX) and Scandinavia (LTE).

One of the main ways 4G differed from 3G was in the elimination of circuit switching, instead employing an all-IP network. With this, 4G ushered in the age of LAN and WAN networks via VoIP.


With the onset of the 3G and 4G markets, smartphones have begun to quickly outpace feature phones in sales. While feature phones still command a large percentage of the market, smartphones with multi-touch displays and high-speed broadband connections are becoming the mainstay of modern mobility.

In the 1950s, mobile phones allowed a user to make a simple phone call on a bulky and heavy device that wasn’t truly mobile. Today, mobile technology allows users to connect nearly every aspect of their life via their smartphone, most notably with the endless barrage of mobile applications offering everything from gaming to tracking fitness and listening to music to watching movies and TV.

Today, the smartphone market is overrun with numerous companies and operating systems. Apple, Samsung, HTC and LG are some of the more notable smartphone makers vying for dominance in the market, with Apple leading the way with its iPhones. As for operating systems, Google’s Android OS is way ahead of the curve, outpacing Apple’s iOS, Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS and others in the field.

Image Caption: (left) The evolution of mobile phones (left to right: Motorola 8900X-2, Nokia 2146 orange 5.1, Nokia 3210, Nokia 3510, Nokia 6210, Ericsson T39, HTC Typhoon) Credit: Anders/Wikipedia (public domain)

Image Caption: (right) A generic smart phone model. Credit: maxkabakov/