The mobile phone has revolutionised communication and become an integral part of our lives. But when did the first handheld mobile phone actually emerge? The origins of mobile telephony stretch back farther than many realise.
The earliest ‘mobile phone’ technology appeared in the 1920s through radio communications used in cars, trains and boats. However, true mobile telephony first emerged in the 1940s and 50s courtesy of Bell Labs. Engineers at Bell developed early cellular networks and trialled the first roaming car phone service.
While pioneering, these first generation car phones were extremely expensive luxuries only accessible to the very wealthy. They were basically just radio telephones only operable in cars.
Commercially available mobile phone networks arrived in the 1960s in the form of zero generation (0G) services. 0G networks like Mobile System A (MTA) were introduced in Sweden, allowing subscribers to place calls from a phone in their car. However, service was very limited in scope.
The first truly portable handheld mobile phone was the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X. Though extremely heavy by today's standards, it allowed users to make calls untethered from a car or location. The DynaTAC8000X received approval from the U.S. FCC in 1983, though it took until 1984 for the first commercial DynaTAC services to be launched in the United States.
In the UK, the first cellular network called the ARP network (later renamed Vodafone) came into existence in 1985. This paved the way for commercially available mobile phone handsets, however uptake was slow due to the bulky size of phones and high costs.
The first generation (1G) of analogue mobile networks dominated the late 1980s. These networks operated on an analogue, circuit-switched technology standard called AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System). 1G offered only basic voice calling without encryption, meaning conversations could be intercepted.
The early 1990s saw the rise of second generation (2G) digital networks, which became more popular than 1G networks. 2G introduced enhanced features like SMS text messaging, basic encrypton and data services. Importantly, 2G enabled mobile phones to become smaller and more affordable. Popular 2G handsets included the Nokia 8110 ‘banana phone’ and Ericsson’s GH337.
As 2G infrastructure improved in the mid-1990s, mobile phone ownership started to soar. Pre-paid SIM cards also propelled adoption by making mobile phones more accessible without a contract. This was the era when mobile phones began entering the mainstream.
The launch of 3G networks in the early 2000s kickstarted the modern mobile phone revolution. With faster data speeds, 3G enabled multimedia messaging, mobile web access and basic applications. Iconic handsets like the Nokia N95 with a 2MP camera defined this era.
Today, advanced 4G and 5G networks power our smartphones that are minicomputers in our palms. But it took many incremental advances over decades for mobile phones to evolve into the ubiquitous communication devices we know today.