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Cell Phones of the Roaring Twenties

Updated on May 8, 2013
Cell Phones through 2006
Cell Phones through 2006 | Source

A 1973 Coincidence

In the March 11th 2009 episode of Life on Mars, an undercover policewoman posing as a stewardess in 1973 talks from an upper story apartment window to a male detective in the street via what looks like a military style Walkie Talkie. The hand unit was about 12 inches long by 4 inches wide and deep and featured a noticeable antenna. The lady cop had to hide hers under the covers of her bed. This looked like the immediate precursor to the model of phone invented by Dr. Martin Cooper in 1973 (see below), except that it had a leather cover for the police department. Visit Life on Mars.

I thought, "These are like cell phones, but there were none at the time." Star Trek® had been cancelled in 1969, but the animated version was showing in 1973, complete with flip open communicator resembling today's cell phones.

Alexander Graham Bell Museum, Nova Scotia

Living History Offers Answers

I recalled the Walkie Talkies used on the battlefields during World War II and the stories of radio phones and battles I had heard from current senior citizens that had fought in the European Theater during the war. This made me wonder who had invented them.

Living history is available from among a group of individuals now in their 80s and 90s in my region. I've listened to Veterans of WWII, owners of the first TV sets, curators of television and radio museums, concentration camp survivors, the children of African slaves, survivors of the Great Depression, and people that witnessed firsthand some of the works of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Frank Lloyd Wright, African American technologists on some of their staffs, and other innovators. I've listened to them, taken notes when they taught me in school, and read their contributions at the Ohio Historical Society.

If the Internet had its beginnings in WWII as a wireless signal meant to go "offline" at regular and frequent intervals to confound the enemy, then some type of precursor had to have been developed first and if Radio Phones and Walkie Talkies were popular in WWII, with child sized models given to little boys for Christmas, then there must have been a precursor for that as well. The telegraph key could have been one such precursor, but what about others? People built wireless crustal radios at the turn of the 20th Century and before. That must be a connection.

The years from Alexander Graham Bell to 1950 are filled with thoughts of the innovations of crystal radios, rock candy, the telegraphy, the automobile, the telephone, the light bulb, the aeroplane, Native American Code Talkers (Navajo, but others as well), Walkie Talkies, shortwave radio, microwave radiation, the hydrogen bomb, space flight. and AARPAnet. Just how far back did the first portable telephone emerge? (AARPAnet goes back to at least the 1940s, but that testimony has been removed form the WWW and many sources state it was invented only after the Cold War started,)

1930s mobile phone gear, Detroit PD.
1930s mobile phone gear, Detroit PD.

Mobile Phones Documented in Fiction Sources

Noting the descriptions in Erle Stanley Gardner's crime fiction, we see the emergence of police car phones in the early 1930s. This was based on fact. Patrol cars in Detroit, Michigan had already had two-way radios in 1921, but advanced to actual automobile telephones shortly. This concept was picked up and use din Los Angeles and other California cities when Gardner was writing his Perry Mason and Donald Lam/Berta Cool Mysteries.

Thus, cell phones can be linked back to the beginning of the 1920s, but even further back in history as well.

Morse Code Alphabet & Translation

Progress - Detroit Police Radio in 1963

A Cellphone Timeline: 1832 Start Date

1832 - Wireless communication concept was initiated and then achieved in 1835 by Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of telegraphy's Morse Code. Morse Code is no longer taught in the US Armed Services, but it should be -- The tapping out of emergency messages can save a life or a country. Morse had a mile-long telegraph cable laid over land and under water to test conductivity of both elements; when a ship ripped it out of the water section, the water itself conducted the telegraph message! Wireless was born. My class learned this in the 4th grade, never dreaming that it would lead to cell phones when we graduated from colleges and graduate schools.

1843 - Michael Faraday is famous in scientific circles. One of his contributions is his research to space conductivity of electricity. He looked at wireless-type transmission of electricity and communcation signals and spurred others to join the fray with their own work.

1865 - American Civil War Era. Dr. Mahlon Loomis was a dentist. He worked on communications through the Earth’s atmosphere via electrical conductor. Ala Benjamin Franklin, he sent two kites aloft, fitted with copper screening and wires. The wiring was connected at ground level via two different mountains about 20 miles from each other. Showing some positive results, Dr. Loomis was awarded a grant from Congress ($50,000) to continue his research.

1921 - Detoit, Michigan in the Roaring Twenties. The Police Department initiated the use of mobile two-way radios/phones that used the 2 MHz frequency in squad cars. It worked, but there was a lot of interference and crosstalk. Ferquency became jammed with too many conversations, This concept was added in California to police vehicles, and landed in the California-based mysteries of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason and Della Street.  

Antique police patrol car, installed with mobile telephone in 1921.IEEE.
Antique police patrol car, installed with mobile telephone in 1921.IEEE.

Precursors to Real Cell Phones.

Agents 86 and 99 with show phones in Get Smart, 1960s - 1970s. Property of CBS and NBC.
Agents 86 and 99 with show phones in Get Smart, 1960s - 1970s. Property of CBS and NBC.
Star Trek Communicator, 1966 - 1969. Property, Paramount Films.
Star Trek Communicator, 1966 - 1969. Property, Paramount Films.
Babylon 5 communicator, attached to the back of one hand; 1990s. Property, Warner Brothers.
Babylon 5 communicator, attached to the back of one hand; 1990s. Property, Warner Brothers.

Another 40+ Years to a Good Product

1934- The FCC or Federal Communications Commission was formed by the federal government to oversee the airwaves. Two-way radios begin to become more popular with Police Department and the higher income brackets of private individuals, as well as private industry. More radio frequencies come into use. A commercial mobile telephone/radio service emerged in St. Louis in the mid-1940s, but service was mediocre. Additional frequencies were added.

1947 - AT&T marketed the first mobile car phone for highway use, but static and interference remained horrid.

1949- The FCC helped to established Radio Common Carriers (RCC) that were the direct precursor to cellular telephones as a profit industry. The first non-radio commercial car phones appeared in the US in 1956. They required operator assistance, with disappeared in the mid 1960s.

1971- AT&T pitched an idea of mobile phone coverage cells (in the air) to the FCC, who agreed, and by 1973, Motorola's Dr. Martin Cooper produced the first successful individual cell phone handset. (Note: My first cell phone in the 1990s was a boxy Motorola that was quite awkward and proced an annoying echo. I switched to Nokia.) By 2001, Bell South stopped manufacturing pay phones because "everyone has a cell phone".

See a related article about the uproar created by the homeless population owning cellphones: Homeless Cell Phones?

Dr. Martin Cooper

Motorola Dyna-Tac, ~ 3 pounds. Talk time of 35 minutes, but 10 hours to recharge. You could only talk, listen, and dial.  [ timeline/1973volokhin.html]
Motorola Dyna-Tac, ~ 3 pounds. Talk time of 35 minutes, but 10 hours to recharge. You could only talk, listen, and dial. [ timeline/1973volokhin.html]

The First Flip Phone

What Do You Remember About Mobile Phones?

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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      I remember that watch phone - a great device!

    • RedElf profile image


      9 years ago from Canada

      I rather like the Babylon 5 version of communicators, though I always envied Dick Tracy his wonderful watch telephone.

    • Albert Street profile image

      Albert Street 

      10 years ago from Northern USA

      Enjoyed this Hub on cell phones. It's amazing how the times have changed. Today when if go somewhere and you leave your cell phone behind, you feel so out of touch with the world.

    • Neil Ashworth profile image

      George Poe 

      11 years ago from United Kingdom

      Like the content. Well put together!

    • Coolmon2009 profile image


      11 years ago from Texas, USA

      It is nice to see where we have been verses where we are now in electronics communications. Good Hub

    • profile image

      a student 

      12 years ago

      this info really helped on my project.

    • profile image


      12 years ago

      ok im looking for info about cell phones and other communication devices from the 50s to the 90s for a history project! and its due friday! could some1 help me?! my e-mail is! thank you!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      12 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      The Old Firm -- You are back!

      I had no idea that the Mae Wests had SARB's, but it makes sense. I'll ask to see this feature the next time I go to the WPAFB Museum - a specific display contains these life jackets. I'll add all these things you mention into the timeline when I have them written up correctly. Rampant commercialism has a way of detroying good things and people, does it not?

    • The Old Firm profile image

      The Old Firm 

      12 years ago from Waikato/Bay Of Plenty, New Zealand

      What about Dick Tracy and his wrist watch two way radio Patty? A cell-phone if ever I saw one. Or CB? And WW2 aircraft all had radio communication. (The long range ones had a wireless operator or signaller who could send/receive morse)

      May Wests, - (Inflatable life-jackets), in the sixties and probably before had small Search And Rescue Beacons, SARBs, that transmitted a homing signal on set frequencies when activated, but could also be used as a two way radio for short range communication. These would fit into a pocket.

      Tesla was up to some pretty interesting things in the way of the wireless transmission of energy too, until commerce considered it unprofitable and destroyed him (- my opinion.)

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      12 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      It's fun to go back in time, but not to stay there LOL - I remember the days in parts of this city where payphones broke and stayed broken for weeks, while private phone lines were still subject to "party line" functions. People got on the line and the probnlem would not be fixed for a week. This was before ATMs were available everywhere in the city - - Imagine a weekend with no car, no bus, no phone and no money :)

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 

      12 years ago from France

      An amazing travel into the history of mobile phones, they are so much part of our every day life that we never stop to think how they came to be so important!

    • Frieda Babbley profile image

      Frieda Babbley 

      12 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

      What a great idea for a cell phone hub! Great info. Love your thought process and historic info. Great photos too. I have to say Max's shoe phone is my favorite. This is the most exciting hubmob hub yet. Great job.


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