Saturday, October 25, 2008

25th Anniversary of the First Cell Phone Call

The following is cross-posted from our parent blog, Drive and Dish (it was posted on Monday, October, 13, 2008 -- the date of the 25th anniversary of the first commercial cell phone call):

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the first commercial cell phone call:

"It was on Oct. 13, 1983, that Bob Barnett, then president of Ameritech Mobile Communications, placed the first commercial wireless call from inside a Chrysler convertible at Soldier Field in Chicago, to the grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, who was in Berlin, Germany."

Like the Internet, cell phones have -- in a short period of time -- radically changed the way in which people live their lives. These days, it's difficult to imagine life without cell phones. But it wasn't all that long ago that the use of cell phones was largely limited to the wealthy and/or powerful.

The picture below is taken from a scene in Oliver Stone's 1987 film "Wall Street." Michael Douglas portrayed the fictional Wall St. arbitrageur Gordon Gekko (more here), a character who was allegedly loosely based on a composite of Ivan Boesky (more) and Carl Icahn.

Gekko's character became a cultural icon in the late 1980's and achieved renown for his assertion that "greed is good." The scene pictured below made waves with movie audiences in the late 80's because Gekko's use a cellular phone to conduct business while at his oceanfront vacation home was widely viewed as a sign of excess. Cellular phones cost about $4000 in those days, and many Americans weren't even aware of their existence. The concept of a cocky rich guy cutting deals while standing on the beach in his bathrobe blew a lot of people's minds.

Back in the late 80's, the only person I knew of who had a cell phone was a friend of my mom's. She had a cell phone because she was a newspaper reporter who covered city hall meetings and court cases. Her cell phone came in it's own briefcase like charging apparatus.

Around 1993 or 1994, Motorola came out with a smaller, more affordable flip phone. That allowed cell phones to become more accessible to the public. But they didn't exactly become ubiquitous overnight. As of '94, cell phones were still largely a viewed as a luxury item.

The first time I saw one was at the '94 Western Open. I was in my late teens at the time and was with my parents as we watched Nick Price put on his last hole of the day. We'd been at the golf tournament all day and I hadn't solidified my social schedule for the night. As such, I was growing uneasy as late afternoon was quickly giving way to night (the Western took place in July, when the daylight lasts past 8:00 PM). I knew that I would have to get home soon if I wanted to be able to get in touch with anyone before they headed out for the night. But the golfers were taking quite a while to finish, and I knew that it would take a while to get out of the parking lot.

Standing just outside gallery were two young, professional looking Filipino guys who had a big gray Motorola cellular phone. Because they were in possession of the latest cutting edge technological gadget, they were able to call friends and hammer out their plans for the night -- in spite of the fact that they were on a golf course and nowhere near a land telephone. My jaw practically dropped as I watched those guys plan their evening from the 18th hole (understand that in 1994, cell phones were still something of a novelty -- outside of the high rollers, hardly anybody had one). I was watching the future play out in front of my eyes. If only I'd had a cell phone, I could have called friends and nailed down my plans for the night ... from the golf course.

It was at that moment that I had an epiphany: I knew that I had to get a cell phone!

When I finally got home and started making my phone calls, all of my friends had already left for the night ... exactly as I had feared. I'd been proven right. Prior to that evening, acquiring a cell phone hadn't been high on my list of priorities. But after enduring one short phone conversation after another in which a friend's mother/brother/sister informed me that the friend I was attempting to contact had already stepped out for the evening, cell phone ownership suddenly rocketed to the top of my list.

Two years later, as a college student/summer intern for House of Representatives, I was issued a cell phone for work. Although I had to return the cell phone when the internship ended, it had essentially changed my life for the months in which it was in my possession. I lobbied my parents heavily to buy a cell phone, if not for me, for the family. Although my dad remained dead set against cell phones (as he remains to this day), my mother purchased a Motorola phone for me as a birthday gift.

It was the same model as the phone on the left:

When I got the phone (at end of 1996), I was about the only guy among my friends (either at college or back at home) who had a cell phone. Believe it or not, people were really impressed by the fact that I had a cell phone.

Often, I'd be out with friends when someone would suggest that we find a pay phone and call some other friends. When I'd offer the use of my cell phone (which I always kept turned off in a gym bag), people's eyes would light up. They'd say things like, "Oh wow. I didn't know that you had a cell phone."

As recently as 1996 or '97, most people still relied on pay phones to make calls when they were away from home.

But within two or three years, everybody and their mother had a cell phone (except for my father).

Now I've got an iPhone and a two year old Motorola RAZR. But like 30 percent of the American population, I don't have a land line.

Without my phones, I'd be absolutely lost.

Cell phones (and now smart phones) have changed everything.

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