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updated: 5/1/2013 9:31 AM

The cellphone at 40: Motorola creation marks anniversary

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Forty years ago, Motorola Inc. engineers in Schaumburg embraced innovation, which led to the creation of the first portable cellular phone and to a whole new way of communicating and living worldwide.

It was the company and the team behind the project that worked together to successfully build that first phone and the system that supported it, said Marty Cooper, who lived in Glencoe when he managed the division he founded for Motorola.

That division is now Google-owned Motorola Mobility.

"I credit Bob Galvin and his father for creating the environment that fostered that innovation in spite of the inevitable failures along the way," Cooper said. "Most importantly, I learned that technology is meaningless if it doesn't, in some way, improve the lives of people. Absent that improvement, technology for the sake of technology can be dangerous."

Cooper, who now lives in California, is considered the father of the cellphone and will receive the Marconi Prize in Bologna, Italy, in October. The Marconi Society was established in 1974 through an endowment from Gioia Marconi Braga, daughter of Guglielmo Marconi, the Nobel laureate who invented the radio.

The phone team actually can trace its roots back to the 1950s. That's when Cooper served in the Navy for 3 years and left as a submarine officer. He went to work for about a year at Teletype Corp. and was then approached by Motorola Inc.

"My interview consisted of a grilling by Dr. Jona Cohn, head of research, and Dr. Bill Firestone, his boss. I still remember the technical problem they had me solve at a blackboard," he recalls.

Cooper was impressed by the experience and accepted Motorola's offer at a 15 percent salary increase over what he made at Teletype -- $462 versus $400 a month.

"It was the smartest decision I ever made," Cooper said. "I never hired anyone after that without a similar grilling."

It was 1972, when Cooper carved out his niche in history. He knew the Federal Communications Commission was issuing more radio frequency spectrum. He wondered how it could be used more efficiently and creatively.

He wanted to demonstrate that the world was ready for a personal phone and that other companies could do it, not just AT&T, he said.

Cooper enlisted colleague Rudy Krolopp, now of Lake Zurich, to put the team together.

"When Marty first came to me in December 1972, he said we needed to develop a portable telephone and fast," Krolopp said. "Well, I didn't know what a portable phone was, because we didn't have any then, but he said it would be just like your desk phone, but take a pair of scissors and cut the wire and you should still be able to do everything you did before when it was on the desk."

When the team started taking shape, they met at a Schaumburg restaurant to discuss ideas. Designs and ideas were perfected. That's when the rivalry between Motorola and AT&T began to heat up. AT&T already had hundreds of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., compared to Motorola's three. The political and business aspects of this system had to work just as well as the technology, Cooper recalled.

But more was at stake. Motorola already had been in the two-way radio business for about 30 years.

Customers in public safety, truck fleets, construction and the transportation industry used two-way radio to improve the speed and efficiency of their operations. The number of users who could gain these advantages through the two-way technology was limited by the number of channels or "spectrum" that was available.

Year after year, manufacturers and users would go to the FCC to ask for more spectrum.

In the late 1960s the FCC had proposed to give the highest 15 UHF TV channels (70-84) to Land Mobile Radio services, but Motorola had to show how it would use that spectrum most efficiently, said Don Linder, a retired lead engineer now living in Kildeer.

"I returned to my boss's office the next day with a diagram of how we could put together various pieces to make the phone work," Linder said.

The base station was built for the phone to "talk" to. Field engineers procured sites and installed base equipment in two locations in New York for the tests. This is what enabled Cooper to make the first public portable phone call in Manhattan on April 3, 1973.

"Decades later, people in management would invent new practices like, goal orientation, empowerment, cross functional teams," Linder said. "On this project, we had a goal: make it work in two months. We were empowered. If anyone didn't want to help us, we would cite out top-level support. And for cross functional, this was the prototype. We had borrowed help from all over the company."

The experience was exciting and stressful, Linder admitted.

"No one knew for certain that we could make it work," Linder recalled. "Along the way we made many compromises to avoid being stuck on various issues. Many things could have been done better with more time, but that just gave us things to work on and to improve later."

They first had to complete a series of technology tests and proposals for the FCC.

They also had to demonstrate to the FCC and U.S. Congressional staff at the Watergate office complex in Washington.

The FCC soon made allocations of spectrum for Motorola and allowed for two carriers in each market. That enabled Motorola to market to companies other than Bell Telephone and to build a business.

While the team worked in Schaumburg, another built integrated circuits at a Motorola lab in Phoenix, Ariz. Another engineer worked in a shack away from the main buildings on the Schaumburg campus to design, test and build antennas for the prototypes used in the field trials.

The DynaTac was taking shape. Engineers nicknamed the DynaTac the Shoe Phone, after the shoe phone used by Maxwell Smart in the TV sitcom, "Get Smart."

Such innovation is what drove Cooper. He said he was always driven to do things differently and better, and has always been enthralled by technology.

"The environment at Motorola encouraged, stimulated that urge," Cooper said. "I quickly learned about the mantra of Motorola's founder, Paul Galvin, and adopted it as my own. 'Reach out, do not fear failure.'"

While he admits he's had his share of failures, they never deterred him from going after the next challenge.

"Fortunately for me, there were lots of compensating successes, of which the cellphone was just one," Cooper said. "And I haven't stopped reaching out."

He believes other business leaders and entrepreneurs should do the same.

"Reach out, but remember that the consumer is king," Cooper said. "It's vital to understand the needs of your customers better than they do. But it is those needs that are crucial, not the technology."

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