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Relic: Motorola dynaTAC

Today, your smartphone is essentially a computer and a phone rolled into one, convenient little package. However, there was a time when a phone was still a phone and a computer was still a computer. Perhaps your parents or any older siblings may remember phones and computers being completely separate entities (in some cases, such as dial-up internet, requiring you to use one or the other). One of the biggest breakthroughs in communications history came from detaching the wire on the traditional landline phone and bringing it out into the world in the form of a cellular phone. One of the most iconic cell phones from the pre-smartphone, or even pre-flip phone era, was the Motorola DynaTAC, also known as the “brick phone.”

Bell Labs had proposed a cellphone as early as 1947 and had constantly petitioned the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) throughout the 1950s and 1960s for channels using cellular technology. John F. Mitchell was at the forefront of mobile communications when he was appointed chief engineer for Motorla in 1960. Motorola had produced car phones during Mitchell’s tenure at the company. Mitchell even rose to become president and COO of Motorola, partnering with another inventor, Martin Cooper, who is known as a pioneer in wireless communications. Cooper is famous for making the first cell phone call in public in 1973. Cooper and Mitchell worked tirelessly on the DynaTAC for the next decade.

U.S. Patent 3,906,166 was filed on September 16, 1975 for a radio telephone system. Cooper, Mitchell, and others had filed the patent, but a notable turn in the DynaTAC’s development came from James J. Mikulski. It was rumored that Mikulski was actually the one who had an idea for a portable cell phone but was originally rejected by Mitchell during the process. It is rumored that Mitchell realized that the 400 MHz phone they were developing had severe limitations during an attempted phone call, and endorsed Mikulski’s idea of a portable cell phone afterward.

The DynaTAC was approved by the FCC on September 21, 1983, and released in the United States in 1984. The phone retailed for US$3,995 (almost US$10,000 in 2018 dollars). It is more known as the “brick phone” rather than a commercial success, but it did revolutionize the market. On October 13, 1983, David D. Meilahn placed the first commercial wireless call on the DynaTAC from a 1983 Mercedes-Benz 380SL to former president of Ameritech Mobile Communications Bob Barnett. Barnett then made a call to the grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone from a Chrysler convertible. Bell’s grandson was in Germany for the event.

There were nine extra buttons on the DynaTAC in addition to the standard buttons on a phone: recall, clear, send, store, function, end, power, lock, and volume. The phone delivered 60 minutes of talking time, and the phone needed to be charged for 10 hours (or one hour in a fast charger). By 1989, the DynaTAC was succeeded by the MicroTAC, a much smaller phone and the first flip phone on the market. Another innovation that the DynaTAC made was its compact design, giving the users freedom from carrying heavy briefcases and tethering mobile phones to their vehicles.

The DynaTAC was actually produced until 1994, despite a cheaper alternative in the MicroTAC being available on the market. By 1996, the much smaller (and cheaper) StarTAC was released. According to Richard Frenkiel, the head of system development at Bell Laboratories, the DynaTAC was “a real triumph and a great breakthrough” for mobile phone technology that continues to evolve even to this day.

Also published in GADGETS MAGAZINE December 2018-January 2019 Issue.

Words by Jose Alvarez