Can You Hear Me Now?

It seems doubtful that when Alexander Graham Bell invented the first telephone in 1876 he could have imagined that the bulky, multi-wired contraption would ever evolve into an item which seemingly every American would one day carry in their pocket. Of course, those reading this story on their handheld device can attest to the truth of that evolution.

The desire to make telephones smaller and less dependent on wires was a long-sought dream which finally became a reality right here in Illinois in 1983.

The need for mobile communications was well known for centuries. Armies communicated on the battlefield using signal flags, runners and carrier pigeons, all of which had many obvious drawbacks. When the first telephones were invented and installed in homes people could communicate with their friends from their living rooms, but they couldn’t step out onto their lawn while doing so.

Radio technology developed in the early 20th century to allow ships at sea to communicate with land and each other. During World War II soldiers were equipped with radios sometimes called field telephones which they used to stay in contact with their headquarters. By the middle of the 20th-century first responders were being dispatched by CB radios in their vehicles, and not long afterwards the CB radio became the preferred mode of communication for truck drivers and many others on the roads.

Each of these developments helped move mobile communications forward, but they also had their limitations. Privacy was non-existent on the airwaves and each device had limits on its range. Telephone communications offered privacy and unlimited geographical range (for a cost), but lacked the mobility of radios. In a roadside emergency, the proximity of a location with a public telephone could mean the difference between life and death.

The idea of a portable phone with no wires was a concept which was explored as early as the 1920s. But in those days it mostly found itself in fiction; think of Chicago-native Dick Tracy and his wrist radio, spoofed in the 1960s by Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone.

While the concept of a handheld mobile phone seemed far-fetched to many, phones in cars appeared more feasible. Bell Labs developed a car phone system in the mid-1940s using analog systems which connected to a local telephone service in St. Louis for making and receiving calls from cars. The system was dependent on an operator who would take the incoming call and then connect it to a landline. It too was short on privacy and limited by the number of such calls the airwaves could support at any one time. Callers frequently had to wait for a radio channel to become available before placing their call.

A series of 1950s and 1960s breakthroughs in communications and in power sources for smaller devices brought the concept of mobile telephones within reach, most notably the invention of the Metal Oxide Silicon Field Effect Transistor or MOSFET. It was also in these years that innovators began moving away from the idea of using cellular telephones to connect to the existing landline network, and instead began looking at creating a separate cell phone network tied together with a series of cellular towers with directional antennas.

Engineers had a number of issues to address in developing this new network. Mobility remained a problem as callers would have to stay within the range of the tower from which the call was initiated. Companies had to develop a method for switching calls from one tower to another without dropping calls. Over time each of these and many other challenges were overcome.

While engineers in laboratories worked on the technology side, communications companies were engaged in creating the networks and systems for making the new technology available and useful to the public. A leading company in this effort for decades had been AT&T, which had been rolling out cellular telephone systems in one way or another since the 1940s.

But AT&T was mired in legal problems by the early 1980s, culminating in an antitrust lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice which forced the company to be broken up into several smaller, regional holding companies. The regional company which was created to cover Illinois and the Great Lakes region was based in Chicago and christened Ameritech. Ameritech would inherit much of AT&T’s work on cellular telephones, including its efforts to create a true cellular telephone network.

Photo from the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library & Museum. 
And this is how Illinois came to the forefront of the revolution in cellular telephone technology.

Motorola’s new DynaTAC 8000x had just become the first cellular telephone to get approval from the Federal Communications Commission for use in the United States. The DynaTAC 8000x was the first cell phone which could be used as a handheld device, though it was enormous by today’s standards. The $4000 phone became commercially available in 1983 and was compatible with the cellular network Ameritech had been working on in Chicago.

The big breakthrough came on October 13, 1983, in the parking lot at Chicago’s Soldier Field. That day Ameritech activated its new network, which today might be referred to as a 1G network. Technicians from Chicago Communications raced to activate the phones in 15 cars in the Soldier Field lot, with legendary Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse providing the play-by-play. The fastest technician then signaled the driver that all was ready for the call to be placed.

David D. Meilahn of Chicago thus became the first person to make a cellular-to-cellular phone call in the United States. The call was across the parking lot to Bob Barnett, who had been the president of Ameritech Mobile Communications. A call was then placed from Barnett’s cellular phone to one of Alexander Graham Bell’s grandchildren to celebrate the occasion.

Cellular telephones exploded in popularity as they became easier to use and much less expensive. Within a few years cell phones were available to the masses. One of these individuals was David Contorno of Lemont, Illinois, who got an Ameritech AC140 cell phone on August 2, 1985. He has been an Ameritech customer ever since (even through mergers and name changes). For his decades as a customer, he has been certified as the Guinness World Record-holder with the most durable cellular phone number.

Innovations in technology enabled the phones to become smaller and the batteries to last longer. Meanwhile, the networks were continually upgraded. Analog networks were replaced by digital – an event marked by another Soldier Field event at which Meilahn donated the phone from the original call to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Today hundreds of millions of people use cell phones for calls and nearly every conceivable communications need. Even Dick Tracy’s futuristic watch phone became a reality with the introduction of the smartwatch. Thanks to that technology which was first unveiled by the lakeshore in Chicago, anyone can be heard from practically anywhere in the world.