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Article updated: 2/21/2013 5:48 PM

'Father' of the cellphone honored 40 years later

By Anna Marie Kukec

As Marty Cooper looked over the crowd of 350 at the gala where he accepted a prestigious award from the National Academy of Engineering, the 84-year-old retired Motorola engineer only could think of how the creation of the first cellphone has changed the world.

That first phone, called the DynaTac and created in Schaumburg by a team led by Cooper, has led to today's 6 billion mobile devices now used worldwide. It also has created new industries and jobs. Smartphones. Apps. Accessories. Internet use. Computing. Texting. Social networks.

And more would come, he thought.

"Never in my lifetime did I think that phone would lead to 6 billion plus now used in the world. That was inconceivable. And to have computers inside of them, in any way, was just unimaginable at the time," Cooper said from his San Diego, Calif., home on Thursday.

"There were no digital cameras in 1973. There was a concept of the Internet, but certainly there was no public Internet at the time, and on and on," Cooper said. "And all this social networking. Yes, that phone changed our lives in a lot of ways since then. And it's only just getting started."

Cooper was honored Tuesday with the academy's Charles Stark Draper Prize, the industry's equivalent to the Nobel Prize for engineering, at a gala in Washington, D.C. It was nearly 40 years ago that he led a Motorola team that created the first cellphone and its cell tower for transmission.

"Long before we messaged people in real-time, had instant maps for anywhere, or streamed movies on our smartphones, Martin Cooper and his team laid the foundations of mobile phone technology," Iqbal Arshad, senior vice president of global product development at Motorola Mobility in Libertyville, said in a statement. "When we look at everything that's been accomplished thanks to the hard work of Martin and his team, we can't think of anyone more deserving of this honor."

The work for which Cooper was honored started in November 1972 when he recruited a number of engineers and others from various departments at the former Motorola Inc.'s Schaumburg headquarters. They would focus on the world's first cellular phone, which would not require wires or be tethered in any way to a home, office or even a car.

The new phone became controversial even before it was created. It would compete against AT&T's new car phone and the team had to convince federal lawmakers to make room on the radio spectrum for the new Motorola DynaTac.

While the team had already done "hundreds of calls" while perfecting the device, Cooper decided to walk down 6th Avenue in New York with a reporter and make a phone call in front of him. The resulting news report, and others, helped to create enough buzz about the new phone that lawmakers took notice, he said.

He soon found himself in New York and Washington, D.C., talking with the Federal Communications Commission and completing a series of technology tests. A major part was a demonstration to members of the FCC and U.S. Congressional staff at the Watergate office complex.

"We had to do demonstrations that were dazzling, and they were," he said.

In April 1973, the DynaTac, affectionately known as "The Brick" because it felt like one at about 2 pounds and 9 inches long, had debuted. It cost just under $4,000.

"The battery life was only about 20 minutes long, but then again, who could hold that phone for 20 minutes," Cooper joked.

Despite the high price, the phone became popular and soon led to other handsets, he said.

"Even at those prices, there were certain people who couldn't live without it," Cooper said. "And when the price and service costs came down, sales really exploded."

By 1983, Cooper retired from Motorola. He and his wife, Arlene Harris, who invented the Jitterbug phone for seniors, moved to San Diego. She continues to work on other inventions. And they also have founded Dyna, which supports the advancement of technology that benefits society.

Cooper, who was talking on a Motorola Droid Razr M phone, said he needs to get the latest devices every three months or so, just to keep up with technology.

"I'm still a techie, he said.

After all, he helped to start the revolution. And there's more to come.

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