The Phone – History and Evolution from 1876 to present day
Photo by Mike Meyers

The Phone – History and Evolution from 1876 to present day

The Phone

Could you survive without your mobile phone? Cell phones have become incredibly advanced in a relatively short amount of time, and the possibilities for the future are seemingly endless.

While cell phones are a fairly modern invention–if you consider 1973 ‘modern’ – the idea of a telephone that could travel with you is as old as the telephone itself. For decades though, the best anyone could offer were bulky two-way radio devices that were essentially walkie-talkies that filled the trunk of your car, but a couple of key engineering developments and a classic American business rivalry would help lay the foundation for the device that revolutionized the way people communicate.

Antonio_Meucci, Photo by Alman._Wellcome

Although most of us feel like we couldn’t live without our mobile phones, they’ve not really been in existence for very long. In fact, mobile phones as we know them today have only been around in the last 21 years.

As with many innovations, the idea for the telephone came along far sooner than it was brought to reality. While Italian innovator Antonio Meucci (pictured at left) is credited with inventing the first basic phone in 1849, and Frenchman Charles Bourseul devised a phone in 1854, Alexander Graham Bell won the first U.S. patent for the device in 1876.

Bell began his research in 1874 and had financial backers who gave him the best business plan for bringing it to market. In 1877-78, the first telephone line was constructed, the first switchboard was created and the first telephone was in operation.

Three years later, almost 49,000 telephones were in use. In 1880, Bell (in the photo below) merged this company with others to form the American Bell Telephone Company and in 1885 American Telegraph and Telephone Company (AT&T) was formed; it dominated telephone communications for the next century. At one point in time, Bell System employees purposely denigrated the U.S. telephone system to drive down stock prices of all phone companies and thus make it easier for Bell to acquire smaller competitors.

Alexander Graham Bell makes a call (
Alexander Graham Bell makes a call (

By 1900 there were nearly 600,000 phones in Bell’s telephone system; that number shot up to 2.2 million phones by 1905, and 5.8 million by 1910. In 1915 the transcontinental telephone line began operating. By 1907, AT&T had a near-monopoly on phone and telegraph service, thanks to its purchase of Western Union. Its president, Theodore Vail, urged at the time that a monopoly could most efficiently operate the nation’s far-flung communications network.

At the urging of the public and AT&T competitors, the government began to investigate the company for anti-trust violations, thus forcing the 1913 Kingsbury Commitment, an agreement between AT&T vice president Nathan Kingsbury and the office of the U.S. Attorney General. Under this commitment, AT&T agreed to divest itself of Western Union and provide long-distance services to independent phone exchanges.

During World War I, the government nationalized telephone and telegraph lines in the United States from June 1918 to July 1919, when, after a joint resolution of Congress, President Wilson issued an order putting them under the direction of the U.S. Post Office. A year later, the systems were returned to private ownership, AT&T resumed its monopolistic hold, and by 1934 the government again acted, this time agreeing to allow it to operate as a “regulated monopoly” under the jurisdiction of the FCC.

The Phone – History and Evolution from 1876 to present day
In 1876, Bell received the first telephone patent for this device, which he used to successfully make between Boston and Salem.
the first modern telephone: the Model 302
In the 1930s, famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss created what many consider to be the first modern telephone: the Model 302.

Today, while most homes are wired and people can travel freely, conducting their phone conversations wirelessly, wiretapping and other surveillance methods can be utilized to listen in on their private business. People’s privacy can also be interrupted by unwanted phone calls from telemarketers and others who wish to profit in some way – just as Internet e-mail accounts receive unwanted sales pitches, known as “spam.”

Yet, the invention of the telephone also worked to increase privacy in many ways. It permitted people to exchange information without having to put it in writing, and a call on the phone came to replace such intrusions on domestic seclusion as unexpected visits from relatives or neighbours and the pushy patter of door-to-door salesmen. The same could be said for the Internet – privacy has been enhanced in some ways because e-mail and instant messaging have reduced the frequency of the jangling interruptions previously dished out by our telephones.

After the Model 302, AT&T realized it could sell the phone to the masses. The phone’s traditionally square base was replaced by a slimmer design with a touchpad, called the Trimline, first produced by the phone company in 1965. Buttons for “*” and “#” were added too.

As the 1960s went on, phones got even smaller. The Grillo Cricket can fold up, setting it apart from other phones at the time. The clam-shell shape influenced the design of the modern flip phone.

Up until 1977, AT&T had a monopoly on phone design in the US. But that year, the Supreme Court lifted restrictions that once prevented people from buying and designing their own phones. This decision, along with AT&T’s divestment from the Bell Company, resulted in all kinds of creative phone designs, including the ’80s Beocom one below.

The Timeline Telephone, designed by Henry Dreyfuss
The Trimline Telephone, designed by Henry Dreyfuss. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
The Grillo (Cricket) Folding Telephone, designed by Marco Zanuso.
The Grillo (Cricket) Folding Telephone, designed by Marco Zanuso. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
The Beocom Copenhagen Telephone, designed by Lindinger-Loewy.
The Beocom Copenhagen Telephone, designed by Lindinger-Loewy. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

At The Beginning of The Mobile Phone

Since the turn of the 20th century, people have envisioned a world where they would be able to keep in constant communication with each other, free of the restriction of wires and cables. With the introduction of radio communications in the early 1900s, and landline telephone services becoming more commonplace at the time, it wasn’t hard to see why people would think that the invention of real mobile phones as we know them today would happen much sooner than it did.

For most of their history, mobile phones were mostly two-way radios that you installed on something that moved. In the 1920s, the German railroad operators began testing wireless telephones in their train cars, starting with military trains on a limited number of lines before spreading to public trains a few years later.

In 1924, Zugtelephonie AG was founded as a supplier of mobile telephone equipment for use in trains, and the following year saw the first public introduction of wireless telephones for first-class passengers on major rail lines between Berlin and Hamburg.

The Second World War saw major advances in radio technology, with handheld radios coming into widespread use. These advances placed mobile radio systems in military vehicles around the same time, but technological limitations limited the quality of the systems significantly.

Old Military Car Phone
Source: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

This didn’t stop companies from offering mobile telephone systems for automobiles to the public in the 1940s and 1950s in America and elsewhere, but like their military counterparts, they came with serious drawbacks. They were large systems that required a lot of power, had limited coverage, and the networks weren’t able to support more than a few active connections at a time. These limitations would hamper mobile phone technology for decades and put a ceiling on how fast technology could be adopted by the public.

In response to this growing demand for better mobile telephony, AT&T’s Bell Labs went to work developing a system for placing and receiving telephone calls inside automobiles that allowed for a greater number of calls to be placed in a given area at the same time.

They introduced their mobile service in 1946, which AT&T commercialized in 1949 as the Mobile Telephone Service. The service was slow to take off, however, with only a few thousand customers in about 100 localities in total. The system required an operator at a switchboard to set up a connection and the users had to push a button to talk and let go of it to listen, making it more like a military radio than the existing telephone system that people were used to, only wireless.

The service was also expensive, and the number of channels available for active connections remained limited, to as little as three channels in some places, and with a conversation taking up the entire channel for the duration of the call, there could never be more active conversations than there were available channels.

The Enorme Telephone, designed by Marco Zanini and Ettore Sottsass, Jr.
The Enorme Telephone, designed by Marco Zanini and Ettore Sottsass, Jr. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
The Dancall 5000 Cordless Telephone, designed by John Stoddard.
The Dancall 5000 Cordless Telephone, designed by John Stoddard. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Car phone. Photo by Paul Stephen Pearson/Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Mary Meisenzahl
Car phone. Photo by Paul Stephen Pearson/Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Mary Meisenzahl

Starting in the early 1980s, some companies experimented with high design phones. The Enorme Telephone boasts a box shape, foreshadowing popular phones to come — with geometric pops of primary colours.

Throughout the ’80s, phones became unburdened from the cord. Pictured below is one such design for the cordless phone, called the Dancall 5000, by British designer John Stoddard.

Car phones, like this 1980 model in a Spanmour limousine, were briefly popular in the 1970s and 1980s until personal cellphones became accessible.

Motorola’s Martin Cooper Invents The First Cell Phone

Motorola's Martin Cooper Invents The First Cell Phone
Martin Cooper of Motorola made the first publicized handheld mobile phone call on a prototype DynaTAC model on April 3, 1973. This is a reenactment in 2007.

Mobile phones, particularly the smartphones that have become our inseparable companions today, are relatively new. However, the history of mobile phones goes back to 1908 when a US Patent was issued in Kentucky for a wireless telephone. Mobile phones were invented as early as the 1940s when engineers working at AT&T developed cells for mobile phone base stations.

The very first mobile phones were not really mobile phones at all. They were two-way radios that allowed people like taxi drivers and emergency services to communicate. Instead of relying on base stations with separate cells (and the signal being passed from one cell to another), the first mobile phone networks involved one very powerful base station covering a much wider area.

Motorola, on 3 April 1973 was the first company to mass-produce the first handheld mobile phone. These early mobile phones are often referred to as 0G mobile phones, or Zero Generation mobile phones. Most phones today rely on 3G or 4G mobile technology and recently 5G and 6G

The Invention of the Cell Phone Was a Multi-Generational Effort

While demonstrated in 1973, it would be another decade of development before Motorola’s cell phone—the world’s first—made it to market, and commercial cellular service for handheld cell phones began. Selling for about $3,500 at the time, no one—not even Cooper—could see Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000x being the first step on the road to the kind of communications revolution to come.

“I have to confess that [the widespread global use of cell phones] would have been a stretch at the time and in 1983 those first phones cost $3,500, which is the equivalent of $7,000 today,” Cooper said in 2003. “But we did envision that someday the phone would be so small that you could hang it on your ear or even have it embedded under your skin.”

As for whether Cooper accepted the title given to him by history, the father of the cell phone, he felt that the honour should be shared.

“Even though I conceived of it,” he said, “it really took teamwork and literally hundreds of people ended up creating the vision of what cellular is today, which by the way is not complete. We are still working on it and still trying to make it better.”

Changing Shape

It’s not just the technology of the cell phone that has changed over time, the physical design has also gone through a rollercoaster of changes. Original car phones and bag phones were as large as modern-day computers and just as heavy.

“Like computers, the cell phone over time has become drastically smaller,” Jones says. He recalls reviewing focus group results while working with Ericsson GE Mobile in the mid-90s. “Customer research showed that the phone was so small that the user interface was unacceptable. Though the phone may have functioned perfectly well, their opinion was partially driven by the perception that the phone was simply too small.”

Eventually, customers’ perceptions shifted and they demanded a smaller, sleeker cell phone.

Just in recent years, cell phone designs have actually started to become larger and simpler, making room for a larger screen and fewer buttons. Because phones have become mobile media devices, the most desirable aspect is a large, clear, high-definition screen for optimal web viewing.  Even the keyboard is being taken away, replaced by a touch screen keyboard that only comes out when you need it. The most obvious example of this is the Apple iPhone and subsequent competitors like the Droid models.

Landmarks in mobile history

Mobile telephony has a long history that started off with experiments of communications from and to moving vehicle rather than handheld devices.

In later years, the main challenges have laid in the development of interoperable standard and coping with explosive success and ever-increasing demand for bandwidth and reliability.

1926: The first successful mobile telephony service was offered to first-class passengers on the Deutsche Reichsbahn on the route between Berlin and Hamburg.

1946: The first calls were made on a car radiotelephone in Chicago. Due to the small number of radio frequencies available, the service quickly reached capacity.

1956: The first automated mobile phone system for private vehicles launched in Sweden. The device to install in the car used vacuum tube technology with a rotary dial and weighed 40Kg.

It had a total of 125 subscribers between Stockholm and Gothenburg.

1969: The Nordic Mobile Telephone (NMT) Group was established. It included engineers representing Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. Its purpose was to develop a mobile phone system that, unlike the systems being introduced in the US, focused on accessibility.

1973: Dr Martin Cooper general manager at Motorola communications system division made the first public mobile phone call on a device that weighed 1.1Kg.

1982: Engineers and administrators from eleven European countries gathered in Stockholm to consider whether a Europe wide digital cellular phone system was technically and politically possible. The group adopted the nordic model of cooperation and laid the foundation of an international standard.

1983: The first mobile phone goes on sale in the shape of the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X. It cost an eye-watering $4000 USD.

1985: Comedian Ernie Wise made the first “public” mobile phone call in the UK from outside the Dicken’s Pub in St Catherine’s dock to Vodafone’s HQ. He made the call in full Dickensian coachman’s garb.

1987: The Technical specifications for the GSM standard are approved. Based on digital technology, it focused on interoperability across national boundaries and consequent different frequency bands, call quality and low costs.

1989: The first-ever truly portable mobile phone hits the shelves – the Motorola 9800X which features a flip-down to cover the keypad.

1991: GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phone launched and 2G digital cellular networks replaced the 1G analogue system. 2G made Text messages, picture messages, and multimedia messages (MMS) possible, creating a whole new way for people to communicate.

1992: Neil Papworth sent the first-ever text message to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis’s Orbitel TPU 901 phone. It read “happy Christmas!”.

  • MOTOROLA INTERNATIONAL 3200. The first digital hand-size mobile telephone.

  • Nokia launched its ‘1011’ model, the first mobile phone that could be used anywhere in the world. This was thanks to its ability to access the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) Network, often referred to as the second generation (2G) of wireless cellular technology. The handset in question weighed just under 500 grams, featuring a monochrome LCD screen and an extendable antenna.

1993: BELLSOUTH/IBM SIMON PERSONAL COMMUNICATOR. The IBM Simon was the first PDA/Phone combo.

1994: IBM brought out the Simon which had a touchscreen and a very early form of what we all know today as ‘Apps’. It cost $899 and only worked in 15 states in the US. Nokia also launched 2110 in Europe, it was one of the smallest GSM phones available and a choice of ringtones which brought us the iconic Grande Valse, now known as the Nokia tune.

1996: The first-ever phone with the ‘slider’ form factor came in the shape of the Nokia 8110. It had the nickname the banana phone due to its shape and even made an appearance on the big screen in the Matrix. It was also the first device to feature a monochrome LCD screen.

1996 MOTOROLA STARTAC: The first clamshell cellular phone. Also one of the first display screens featured on a cell.

1996/97: UK phone ownership stood at 16% of households. A decade later the figure was 80%. The explosion in growth was in part driven the launch of the first pay as you go, non-contract phone service, Vodafone Prepaid, in 1996.

1998: The first downloadable content sold to mobile phones was the ringtone, launched by Finland’s Radiolinja, laying the groundwork for an industry that would eventually see the Crazy Frog ringtone rack up total earnings of half a billion dollars and beat stadium-filling sob-rockers Coldplay to the number one spot in the UK charts.

1999: Emojis were invented by Shigetaka Kurita in Japan. Unlike their all-text predecessor’s emoticons, emojis are pictures. The same year in the UK sees the first shots fired in a supermarket price war, with Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda selling Pay and Go phones at discounted prices. For the first time, you could pick up a mobile phone for just under £40.

  • The first BlackBerry phone was also unveiled in 1999. Famous for its super-easy email service, BlackBerry handsets were seen as the ultimate business tool, allowing users to read and respond to emails from anywhere. This led to 83% of users reading and responding to work emails while on holiday, and over half admitted to sending emails on the toilet, winning the manufacturer the nickname CrackBerry.

2000: The all-conquering Nokia 3310 crash-landed on shop shelves. Naturally, it was unscathed and went on to sell 126 million units. Over in Japan, the first commercially available camera phone The Sharp J-SH04 launched in November 2000 in Japan. The only snag? you could only use it in Japan. Europe wouldn’t get its first camera phone until the arrival of the Nokia 6750 in 2002.

2003: The 3G standard started to be adopted worldwide, kicking off the age of mobile internet and paving the way for the rise of smartphones. Honk Kong-based Hutchinson Whampoa owned Three brands offered the first 3G network connection in the UK among other countries. Staying very much on-brand, Three ranged a trio of 3G handsets, namely: the Motorola A830, the NEC e606 and NEC e808.

  • Nepal was one of the first countries in southern Asia to launch 3G services. One of Nepal’s first companies to offer the service, Ncell, also covered Mount Everest with 3G.

2007: The iPhone debuted. Solely available on O2 at launch in the UK and priced at a then eye-watering $499, Nokia CEO confidently dismissed it as little more than a ‘cool phone’ that wouldn’t translate column inches into market share.

2008: The first Android phone turned up, in the form of the T-Mobile G1. Now dubbed the O.G of Android phones, it was a long way from the high-end Android smartphones we use today. Not least because it retained a physical keyboard and a BlackBerry-style trackball for navigation. This year also saw the advent of both Apple’s App Store and Android Market, later renamed Google Play Store, paving the way for our modern-day app culture and creating a $77 billion industry.

2009: O2 publicly announced that it had successfully demonstrated a 4G connection using six LTE masts in Slough, UK. The technology, which was supplied by Huawei, achieved a peak downlink rate of 150Mbps.

  • WhatsApp also launched that year, letting customers send and receive calls and messages via the internet. The messaging system now has 1.2 billion users sending more than 10 billion messages a day. Which makes it 50% more popular than traditional texting.

2010: Samsung launched its first Galaxy S smartphone. Usurping former Android giants, HTC, the Samsung Galaxy S range is still the most popular Android brand.

2012: When text messages first arrived, most people didn’t think they’d catch on. Ten years later, Britons were sending a billion messages per month. In 2012, British text volume reached its highest point, with 151 billion sent in the UK alone.

2016: The Pokemon Go app launched worldwide. The free augmented reality game uses the smartphone camera and location to show Pokemon characters in the real world. The aim of the game is to travel to different locations to collect as many Pokemon as possible, leading countless gamers to walk into lamp-posts in their quest to catch ‘em all.

2017: The Nokia 3310 had a revival, sporting a fresh version equipped with basic web browsing, a colourful screen and even a camera. Despite this, it still retained our favourite features from the original 3310, including the iconic design, super-long battery life and even an updated version of Snake. Needless to say, it stole the show at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) tech expo and was one of the biggest hits of the year.

  • Apple marked ten years in the smartphone game with the all-screen iPhone X and ditched a physical home button for the first time.
  • Microsoft ends support for the Windows Phone OS, just 7 years after its response to Android and iOS. Screen design dominance continues to rise, with Samsung Galaxy S8 and iPhone X adopting over 82% screen-to-body ratios.
  • The focus on-screen real estate sees the rise of the ‘notch’ trend. The Sharp Aquos S2 and Essential Phone first to sport the feature before the iPhone X gave it true prominence.
  • SMS messaging celebrates its 25th anniversary. After struggling to gain widespread adoption due to poor coverage, the service now transmits 22 billion messages daily.

2018: Chinese manufacturer Ulefone launches the Power 5 incorporating a 13,000 mAh battery, the largest ever seen in a mobile phone over four times greater than Apple’s flagship, the iPhone XS Max released in the same year.

2019: The UK & US begin to deploy 5G network, initial indications point to real-world data transfer speeds 10 times faster than 4G.

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