For over 30 years now, cellular phones have continued to make the world a smaller place. As a gadget that started out as a productivity tool for the elites, it has become one of the great enablers of new business infrastructure around the world. It has also become both the first truly universal computer and a first step into a brave new internet of things and wearable technology. From enabling after-school social lives of teenagers in car-dependent suburbia, connecting present day refugees from the Middle East, to reminding chair bound office workers to work out more, it’s a personal device few people would want to live without. Let’s take a look at some pics of cell phones through the ages and think about their appearance and use!

Let’s start pre-historic for a minute though. The use of radio communications in ways resembling modern cell phones dates back nearly a century. Here we see police in Chicago try out a car radio system in 1922. This system broadcasted at frequencies just above the AM band.

Radio telephony in 1922 Chicago, USA
Fast forward a few decades and one world war to the picture at the beginning of this this article. Here UK Postmaster General Reginald Blevins celebrates the opening of the first commercial radio phone system for motorists. Early systems like these were extremely expensive to operate, got congested very quickly and always required operators to connect to the landline system. These important but limited and exclusive systems did however get built around the world and did bootstrap a lot of mobile engineering in countries such as Finland and Sweden that one day would house international phone brands.

After car-mounted telephony having established itself for special purposes, the early seventies saw the promise of handheld mobile communications. Pictured here in 2007 is legendary Motorola engineer Martin Cooper with his 1973 invention, a prototype for a mobile phone that would become an 80s cultural icon. This prototype had a talk time of a mere 35 minutes on a battery that required 10 hours to charge.

Martin Cooper posing with his 1973 handset prototype in 2007

With the age of “modern” mobile telecommunications approaching, several technical advancements were made. Early radio telephony had constant problems with radio spectrum just being devoured and jammed up. But with the advent of cellular technology came a wave of innovations that still results in ever increasing efficiency in the use of convenient radio frequencies. As illustrated in this late 70s diagram from The Bell System Technical Journal, all modern mobile phone networks rely on a beehive-like pattern of radio coverage between a network of radio masts using different bands of frequencies.

In the diagram, the towers A1, B2 and C1 use different frequencies. But A2, surrounded by C1, F1 and D2, can reuse the frequencies of A1. Following this is what we take for granted in today’s digital cell networks: the mind boggling digital choreography of cell towers colluding with each other and phones to allow for seamless movement over geographical areas without any interruption in ongoing calls.

V.H. MacDonald's diagram on frequency reuse in cellular networks

The Motorola DynaTAC 8000x was announced in 1983 as the first commercially available cell phone at the price of 4000 dollars, around 10k in today’s money. The basic model would be updated throughout the decade until replaced by smaller models. The basic design is striking and has been renowned in mass media as an icon of futurism and wealth rather than an everyday object. One iconic appearance, magnate Gordon Gekko in ‘Wall Street’ (1987) sported one. As a similarly less-than-flattering symbol for the 80s, it has resurfaced in countless period pieces, such as the yuppie bloodbath ‘American Psycho’ (2000) and ‘Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’ (2002).

Iconic Motorola DynaTAC phones used by Christian Bale's character in 'American Psycho' and Ray Liotta's character in GTA: Vice City

While many of the initial developments in mobile telecommunications happened in the United States, the promise of the technology became a worldwide hit, a trend that continues to this day. In an age when people who never owned a personal computer are graduating from banking over SMS to ecommerce on smart phones, it’s interesting to look back at the Nordic action around mobiles. Sweden, Norway and Finland were the first countries to open fully automatic cell networks in 1981-1982. Telecom companies Ericsson (Sweden) and Nokia (Finland) created vibrant ecosystems of contracting companies and specialized research. In the clip below, the Soviet Union’s last leader, Gorbachev, makes a call on a Mobira (Nokia) Cityman during a 1987 visit to Finland.

Mobile technology quickly started shrinking in size and in 1989, along came Motorola’s first clamshell model, the MicroTAC. With some generosity, this phone could easily be thought of as pocket sized and features one distinct feature still found in iPhones: volume buttons on the left side. This basic design was updated for digital networks in 1994.

Motorola MicroTAC 9800x

Throughout the nineties, digital cell networks (GSM and CDMA) got deployed in many countries, ensuring better audio quality and scalability. Around the same wave of new technology, the industry saw a number of “firsts” and changes in direction that essentially remain compatible with the GSM networks of today. One such change was multi-band phones that could operate in different networks. Another “first” is the 1998 Ericsson SH888, the first commercially available phone with a built-in modem the busy elites could use to get crawling-slow Internet connections to their laptops.

Ericsson SH888

For someone who grew a social and cultural awareness in late 90s Finland, the Christmas of 1998 was a special one. I kid you not: this was when several of my classmates in fifth and sixth grade started getting phones for Christmas and Nokia formed a stronghold as the only cool brand. As someone who wasn’t afforded this privilege, I could only gleefully watch as the Nokia 5110 with its replaceable “Xpress-on“ faceplates and iconic Snake game became the standard for more than innocent fun among its owners. I witnessed many frustrated situations with removed phone privileges as my pre-adolescent classmates ran into the confusing realities of mobile services. SMS was an instant hit, but before the advent of unlimited texting plans or even prepaid plans, let alone billing limits, these phones were a perverse mix of a credit card and a social network. Not always a great match for children.

Nokia 5510

The kids who got 5110’s for Christmas might have had parents with early smartphones such as the Nokia Communicator. It wasn’t officially called a smartphone though. The first device marketed as a smartphone was the Ericsson R380, which featured a communicator-like keyboard about a year later.

Nokia 9000 Communicator

In the early 2000s, many Western countries witnessed versions of my Christmas of 1998. By the time Nokia phones switched to internal antennas, mobile phones and plans became increasingly affordable and essential tools for basic participation in society. By the end of the 2000-2005 production run of the iconic candybar formfactor Nokia 3310, a personal phone might just have become necessary to land a job.

Nokia 3310

By the mid-2000s one thing became abundantly clear. Phones were doing more each year. The only thing speaking against smartphones were, perhaps, the smartphones themselves. Smartphones were expensive and worst of all clumsy. Not to the degree that they averted all users: business users and aficionados found the crummy web browsers and e-mail clients included with the phone good enough for what it was: (slow) internet access almost anywhere. In addition to the web, some users enjoyed geeky things like terminal emulation access on their smartphones. The Palm Trio phones are a good example of what a capable early 00s smartphone looked like.

Canadian pager manufacturer RIM also made a very successful line of phones centered on e-mail and messaging. Users of the platform were North America centric but ranged from corporate execs to government officials and texting aficionados at its heyday in the late 00s.

Palm Treo 300

All hope was not lost to consumers however. During the mid-early 00s, standard buyers of mid-range phones increasingly found themselves leaving the stores with handheld 256-color computers that could function as music players, had a bunch of games, could run software, like the “full featured” Opera Mini browser. Some of these phones even had cameras. In many important markets like the US, all this happened cleverly with hidden costs, with carriers subsidizing the upfront cost of the phone with steep subscription fees, especially for data plans.

Without getting ahead of ourselves, some today say that Apple might find it hard to ever again outdo the success of the iPhone, the total cost of which is obscured to consumers in the US. One generally acclaimed feature phone was the Motorola Razr V3i

Motorola Razr V3i

Everything changed in 2007. After years of rumors, Apple entered the phone market with the iPhone. Initially limited to bundled apps and interactive web pages, the phone’s stripped down version of OS X showed so much promise that Apple caved and released an SDK and the tightly controlled App Store a year later. While an immediate hit and wanted by many, the iPhone, with its initial exclusive carrier deals, grew into a true mass market item with every iteration into the 10s. While not always having the latest features on paper, the iPhones became renowned for good cameras and a polished, tightly controlled operating system. To this day, Apple’s iOS operating system remains the mobile platform that most reliably receives both feature and security updates, making them fully viable second hand buys. Depicted below is the third iteration of the iPhone, the 3GS, released in 2009.

Apple iPhone 3GS

While the iPhone received a lot of admiration, it soon became clear that it divided opinions. While Apple products tend to be polarizing, it’s interesting to see which players in the IT industry outright dismissed the phone. Most notably, Microsoft and Nokia execs, much to their detriment, doubted its potential and failed to grasp the desirability of its very responsive touch screen UI and optimized hardware performance. It wasn’t uncommon to doubt that Apple actually managed to pull off live, on-screen demos of its software. Mostly however, few anticipated how Apple managed to strongarm carrier after carrier into selling a phone without, for example, ugly, customized software and logos.

Unlike at the soon sinking ships of Nokia and Ballmer-era Microsoft, a team at Google became both impressed and frustrated by the iPhone announcement. The team, which had been acquired a few years earlier, was in the midst of developing Google’s smart phone OS, Android. After the drool-inducing appearance of Apple’s mobile offering became apparent, Google quickly sent their by then ancient looking, Blackberry style prototypes back to the drawing board.


A while later, Google announced the first Android phones, but most importantly, partnering handset manufacturers that chose to implement the open source system and bundled Google services into their products.

T-Mobile G1 (HTC Dream)
Fast forward a few years and Android has become the probably most used operating system ever. The dropping process of smartphones has placed such devices, mostly running Android into the hands of many people around the world who never before owned (let alone used) any computers. Of the hardware manufacturers, the story of Samsung is particularly interesting: it rose to dominate the market with devices like the S III, only to a few years later be increasingly pressed by Chinese newcomers on the Western markets.

Samsung Galaxy SIII

There we have it: a quick walkthrough of the history of mobile phones

For those of us who came of age with them, mobile phones changed our outlook and life and society. In the comments below, feel free to share your first memories related to cell phones. I’ll go first: I used only two long-lived weatherproof phones, the Ericsson “shark fin” R310S and the Nokia “alien” 5100, before getting my first Androids in 2010 (HTC Wildfire) and 2011 (HTC Desire Z). I quickly became disgusted with the quality of Android and the lack of security updates and switched to iPhones in 2012. Thanks to Finnish consumer law, which quickly allowed cell numbers to be transferred between carriers, I’ve used the same phone number for nearly 15 years.

What phones have you used with what kinds of plans?

Thomas Nybergh

Thomas Nybergh

Thomas Nybergh is a writer with a passion for mobile technology and user-centred design. He has spent nearly a decade working at the crossroads of technology and marketing and now spends far too much time on the internet helping to make it tick.
Thomas Nybergh

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