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We Could Have Had Cellphones Four Decades Earlier ( 263

_Sharp'r_ writes: Professor Thomas Hazlett of Clemson University analyzed the history of wireless spectrum and concluded the technology was known and available for cellphones in the 40s, but there was no spectrum available. Based on assumptions cellphones would always be luxury goods without mass appeal, significant spectrum for divisible cellular networks wasn't legally usable until the early 80s. Instead, the unused spectrum was reserved for the future expansion of broadcast TV to channels 70-83. Here's an excerpt from the report: "When AT&T wanted to start developing cellular in 1947, the FCC rejected the idea, believing that spectrum could be best used by other services that were not 'in the nature of convenience or luxury.' This view -- that this would be a niche service for a tiny user base -- persisted well into the 1980s. 'Land mobile,' the generic category that covered cellular, was far down on the FCC's list of priorities. In 1949, it was assigned just 4.7 percent of the spectrum in the relevant range. Broadcast TV was allotted 59.2 percent, and government uses got one-quarter."
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We Could Have Had Cellphones Four Decades Earlier

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  • by Cmdln Daco ( 1183119 ) on Wednesday June 14, 2017 @11:34PM (#54623373)

    Without modern miniaturization, spread-spectrum, and modern data compression, it would have been for an elite. We are lucky it wasn't rolled out in the 40's because it would have been a nickel-plated vacuum tube thing, and allocated to high-payers before the technology to allocate it widely existed.

    • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Wednesday June 14, 2017 @11:39PM (#54623399) Journal
      And modern batteries.
      • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @12:02AM (#54623515)

        Sounds to me like it would have been a technology integrated into luxury automobiles. We already saw other tech like 12" phonographs in luxury automobiles, so it's not exactly a stretch to imagine such a thing being popular for businessmen in sufficiently lofty jobs where better communications would make for more decisions. On top of that automobiles have had generators or alternators since the nineteen-teens, when Cadillac adopted a Delco starter/generator unit, so something of a modern electrical system existed. I remember Dad's '40 Buick having a 6V generator, not the most sophisticated of devices, but it would have been enough to power a two-way radio like a cellular phone.

        Early phones would have been huge, but as the usefulness was demonstrated companies would have sought to make them smaller. They might still have essentially remained carphones until the integrated-circuit era, but that doesn't mean that no one would have had them.

        • We already saw other tech like 12" phonographs in luxury automobiles,

          Well that's kind of a cool thing I didn't know about.

        • by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @12:24AM (#54623587)
          Well, it WAS integrated into luxury automobiles. Car phone services were definitely around from the late 1940s on, but coverage areas were severely limited and costs were astronomical. I first remember realizing this watching the original Sabrina movie with Humphrey Bogart, and Bogie makes a call from his car.. In a 1954 movie. I was a bit shocked, but I looked them up, and sure enough phones like that were around back then. However, as TFA notes, these weren't CELLULAR phones, just mobile phones. Cellular tech was actually what allowed enlarged networks and cheaper prices because more calls could be routed through networks. Cellular was what transformed a luxury good into a more common one.
          • by Anne Thwacks ( 531696 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @02:54AM (#54623929)
            Cellular tech was actually what allowed enlarged networks and cheaper prices because more calls could be routed through networks. Cellular was what transformed a luxury good into a more common one.


            It was the transistor which meant a radio transmitter could be smaller than 2 cubic feet, and cost less than a Harley-Davidson bike.

            Evidently, some people were born yesterday (or clickbait).

            • by Ender_Stonebender ( 60900 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @08:03AM (#54624561) Homepage Journal

              I'm pretty sure that both of those things are necessary (and neither of them, separately, is sufficient) in order to transform the idea of a "car phone" into what we think of as "mobile phones" today. Transistors allowed us to get to pocket-sized, battery-powered devices; cellular allowed us to get more calls into a given spectrum, so more than a dozen people could be using their mobile phones at the same time in the same city.

            • by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @09:10AM (#54624871)
              Transistors were invented in the late 1940s. Mobile phones did not become common until the 1980s with the adoption of cellular tech. RTFA.
              • BTW, when I say "mobile phones," I'm including car phones. Obviously continuing advances in miniaturization (including transistors) allowed HANDHELD phones to happen. But I was talking about mobile phones in general (i.e., those that can move from place to place), including large car phones -- which likely could have become more common a bit earlier (even if they were bulky) had there been a more efficient way of making use of networks to transmit calls. (Also, as others here have pointed out, TFA is exa
          • Basically the same tech that was in ship-to-shore...

        • by chthon ( 580889 )
          When I started working in 1990 my boss had a cell phone (yes, GSM technology from Ericsson) in his car. A device as large as a battery. I wonder how big it would have been built with pure transistors, built with tubes?
      • Well, more modern than what they had in the 40's and 50's anyhow. Anything that could be the size of a briefcase or smaller.

        I think of "modern batteries" as lithium ion or nickle-metal hydride. In the 40's they would have had to use led-acid or nickel-cadmium. I think the lack of transistors would still be the bigger issue though (pun not originally intended, but readily accepted).

    • Even with the schedule that was actually used; cellphones went through a fair period of being rather pricey "I'm-basically-Gordon-Gekko" status symbols that tended to indicate either nontrivial disposable income or a job where being able to contact you on short notice was worth a lot of money to someone.

      Given the vastly more limited options(both for handsets and for making efficient use of spectrum) in 1947, I find it rather hard to imagine how such phones would have been anything but stratospherically e
      • The existence of MTS was one of the reasons cites in the article for why the FCC dragged its feet on allocating spectrum for cellphones.

        Cellphones had massive advantages over MTS which didn't seem to be noticed. The biggest one was why we call them cellphones, because they talked to a local cell using low power instead of trying to broadcast across the city on high power and stepping on everyone else.

        That's why cellphones took off, but MTS remained expensive and only capable of a small number of users at a

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      The US had Improved Mobile Telephone Service []
      How Russia did it in the 1960's Altai (mobile telephone system) []
      B-Netz [] that replaced A-Netz in West Germany.
      • If you read the article (I know, this is /.), then you'd read about the huge technological difference between MTS (essentially radio to one point in the city) and cellphones (talking to local cells hooked up to the phone system).

        There's a reason MTS was so expensive and rare and Cellphones aren't.

        • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
          Other nations had some funding, skills, tech, the same communications needs, distances, math.
          They did what they could with the tech of the day. Other nations did have to think of cell issues and moving from cell to cell.
        • by makomk ( 752139 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @05:18AM (#54624215) Journal

          IMTS isn't the same as MTS. Also, the reason why MTS was so expensive and rare is because in the 1940s the technology simply wasn't there to run such a system without hugely expensive equipment weighing 80 pounds. Reason's argument that it's the Government's fault for not allocating the spectrum just doesn't fly; the UHF frequencies they're talking about are, if anything, harder to operate on than the VHF frequencies used by MTS. Similarly, the technology to do handoff between cells and automatic frequency selection and dialling didn't exist yet either. Both MTS and IMTS were actually right at the bleeding edge of what was possible when they were introduced - bear in mind that IMTS predated the availability of ICs and MTS that of transistors, while cellular handsets were complex enough to need microprocessors.

          It's important to remember that Reason magazine has an ideological opposition to government regulation and indeed government in general that drives a lot of their reporting.

    • Even the simplest bare-minimum function (making calls) would require a system the size of a house. In the early 40's, it was virtually impossible to reliably build anything that ran above about 50 mhz in mass-production, forget *890* mhz. There were AM "apex" broadcasts in the 50 mhz range, and early FM was around there, too, because that was the best they could do.

      Even in the mid 50's the "new" FM band at 100-ish mhz was very marginal to even build into a receiver, and there was *never* a portable

    • It's true. I don't understand the story. An emerging technology with no proven record and actually does cost a huge amount to do something no one knows they even want only gets awarded 4.7% of the available spectrum range, and we're supposed to be outraged? They were given what they needed! How in the holy hell is this impeding progress?

      (As well as what everyone else said about miniaturization and batteries and whatnot)
    • Maybe the product would have been wall units that connected via cell phone signals. Couldn't find information on how much copper ma bell or whoever had rolled out by the 40's. But I'm guessing a lot of places never would have had telephone lines. Wonder what that would have done for dialup internet service. Would we maybe have fast nation-wide wifi at the moment or would the internet be only in libraries and places that had expensive copper hookups?
    • In the late 50s and early 60s I was exposed to the automobile trunk filling technology of the mobile telephone. When I think of the timing requirements for trunking radios let along cell phone radios rendered in empty state electronics (large, hot, and nifty-drifty) I get an extreme case of the giggles. The Jolly Green Giant's limo MIGHT have had room for the electronics if the giant himself rode in the trunk.

      It's time to put away the tin-foil conspiracy hat and come back to reality. There is a difference b

    • As an AC pointed out above, there was something analogous in the 1940s.

      "A car phone is a mobile phone device specifically designed for and fitted into an automobile. This service originated with the Bell System, and was first used in St. Louis on June 17, 1946.
      The original equipment weighed 80 pounds (36 kg), and there were initially only 3 channels for all the users in the metropolitan area. Later, more licenses were added, bringing the total to 32 channels across 3 bands (See IMTS frequencies). This s
    • Or for farmers. Telephone and power Lines in the 1940s didn't well cover the rural areas. This could had been marketed as a poor quality tool for those hicks who didn't live in the city.
      I actually think if it was marketed as a high end product for the rich the FCC would had allowed it.

    • Yeah, that was my thought too. I'm old enough for there still to have been radio sets (that's what they called 'em) that were built in the early fifties in my and other people's homes when I grew up, and when you took them apart the insides would have needed something larger than a shoebox to fit into. And that's just a receiver.

      Sure, miniaturization wasn't a big deal back then, and maybe there were ways to make smaller valves, but transistors weren't ready for prime time.

      The best I can imagine they mi

    • Very elite is more like it. These things were big and very expensive. Here's a site with a few of those early units. []

      Scary enough, I've actually had part of the Motorola Deluxe Phone in my garage and though for years it was an old amplifier. One of the neighbors on my block threw it out and I dumpster dived it when I was 9 but dad threw it out before i figured out what it was.

      I found out later from his wife that not only did the guy have a cellphone, But it was installed in h

  • by Mosquito Bites ( 4975333 ) on Wednesday June 14, 2017 @11:37PM (#54623387)
    Many kinds of technology were involved into making the cell phone - from hardware to software - and most were simply not matured enough during the 1940's
  • by furry_wookie ( 8361 ) on Wednesday June 14, 2017 @11:44PM (#54623419)
    The were called "radio phones/car phones". They were in use since the late 1940's and were quite popular in the 60s, 70s, and through the early 80s and often found in Limousines etc, before cell phones.

    This author does not really know what they are talking about.
    • by AHuxley ( 892839 ) on Wednesday June 14, 2017 @11:48PM (#54623439) Journal
      Yes car phones. []
      Mobile radio telephone [] has the 1950's and 60's networks.
    • No shit (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @01:00AM (#54623689)

      Particularly since cellphones as they actually were/are, meaning phones that work with individuals radio "cells" and move between them need computers to work. They don't have to be amazing computers, but they need some computer logic to handle dealing with dynamic frequency assignment and handoff between towers.

      That one piece of a technology, even an important piece, existed at a given time doesn't mean the tech could happen. Many devices require a confluence of a number of technologies before they can happen.

      Smartphones are an example. They aren't particularly a novel idea, we've seen shit like them in sci fi for a long time. However to actually be a thing on the market we needed a lot of shit:

      --Processors had to get fast enough at a small enough size
      --Displays had to get small, light, and low energy
      --Batteries had to get sufficient energy density
      --Silicon based storage had to evolve to usable levels
      --We needed wireless digital communication
      --We needed the Internet (or something like it to have something worth connection to)

      Without any one of those things, you don't have a workable smartphone. That they started to rise to prominence when they did isn't some amazing stroke of genius or luck, it was because the various technologies had reached the needed point.

      • by Maritz ( 1829006 )

        That they started to rise to prominence when they did isn't some amazing stroke of genius or luck, it was because the various technologies had reached the needed point.

        Are you suggesting we'd still have smartphones now if it wasn't for Apple? ;)

        • That they started to rise to prominence when they did isn't some amazing stroke of genius or luck, it was because the various technologies had reached the needed point.

          Are you suggesting we'd still have smartphones now if it wasn't for Apple? ;)

          Horrors.... no.... It's not a smartphone without rounded corners... (grin)

  • PCs much sooner than we did except some asshat in the 1940's said the world only needed five computers.
  • Given that the first commercial transistor radio was not sold until 1954 my guess is that a 1940s cell phone would have been rather heavy and not had very good battery life.

    • It would have been a portable radio by any other name. Digital wasn't even doable in that era without the IC (integrated circuit; microchip). Essentially, HAM radio was it.

  • by neurosine ( 549673 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @12:00AM (#54623499) Homepage
    We could all be using satellite phones now...but they're not commercially viable...capability does not equal widely applicable. Especially technological capacity in its infancy. We could theoretically all be travelling in electromagnetic floating cars...but we're's technically feasible...but not practical or commercially viable at this point in though Tesla demonstrated wireless electricity in the 1800's...we're just now coming into induction charging as a regular thing. We're still not powering every device in our house through one central electrical's all being worked on though just can't get it cheap now...
    • We're still not powering every device in our house through one central electrical's all being worked on though just can't get it cheap now...

      Nor will you ever get it. Your electric range, your refrigerator, your microwave, your electric clothes dryer, hell, even your hair dryer are all too high wattage to power from a central transmitting coil without suffering tremendous losses, even with resonant antennas.

      Even if you're willing to tolerate the losses, only your appliances are large enough to accommodate the required antenna. Neither your hair dryer nor your vacuum cleaner is big enough to lug around an antenna large enough to be resonant wit

  • Apparently AT&T had a consultancy firm do a study which concluded people didn't want them. From today's Computerphile:- []
  • The technology was barely there in the 70s to make it profitable. I think most likely, a few really wealthy people (captains of industry) would get it in the 10940s, and the upper class (millionaires) would slowly get them in the 60's.

    Maybe the general public would have got them ten years earlier.

  • I don't think the electronics were small enough back then for this application. Maybe. Doubt it. Certainly battery technology back in the 40's was vastly inferior than what we have now.

    I mean, just think about what they produced in the 80's, those frick brickphones. And our electronics advanced by 30 years. Even then, it really did take another 20 years of advances in batteries, electronics and miniaturization to get where we were in the early 2000's, and it's advanced even wildly faster since then.


  • by Mike Buddha ( 10734 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @01:18AM (#54623741)

    The Romans had all the technology to make guns. But they didn't, because they lacked the requisite mindset to make black powder and bronze gun barrels.

  • If anything, this is proof nothing significant happened at Roswell, NM in 1947. If it HAD, we would have had things like this popping out of government-funded reverse engineering groups and stuff like transistors would have come along in the mid 50's and.... oh wait, transistors DID come along in the 50s, didn't they? And early integrated circuits, lasers and all sorts of other high tech innovations.

    Never mind, clearly we DID come up with a lot of advancement in a very short period of time. But nobody tho

  • With valves (Score:5, Funny)

    by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @01:44AM (#54623797) Homepage Journal

    Yeah, right. With valves. You'd need some kind of cart just for the batteries.

  • by Dog-Cow ( 21281 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @01:46AM (#54623801)

    The summary reads like: if we had known the future, we could have done something differently.

    I think you could make the claim about a trillion other decisions made throughout history.

    • by Maritz ( 1829006 )

      Yeah. If Ug and Eng's great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaddy had bang those rocks together instead of Ug, we'd be in fucking spaceships now.

  • Portable phones, sure - the military had radios, so why not?

    Only, they would hardly have been cell phones in any sense. The transistor wasn't invented until the late 1940s, and wasn't really mass produced until the early 1960s. So you'd have been holding a huge case full of vacuum tubes up to your ear, not exactly comfortable. Heck, remember how huge the early cell phones of the 1970s were, and that's already with integrated circuits. Even a purely transistor-based phone would have been huge.

  • by m.alessandrini ( 1587467 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @03:14AM (#54623973)
    First handheld cell phone from Motorola in 1973 was quite big, and they said it was a huge research and manufacturing effort to squeeze components down to that size with 70s technology.
  • 4 decades? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @03:28AM (#54624001)

    The article tells us that the first "cellular" call (the author's opinion seems to be that this was the only contributory technology required to make "cellphones" as we know them today) was made in 1973. So 4 decades earlier would have meant starting celular technology in the early 1930's.

    But to claim we could have had "cellphones" at any particular point in time implies all the infrastructure that goes with them: small size, portability, low cost, cell-towers, call routing computers, high capacity batteries. Simply saying that technical feasibility is the same as being able to develop a commercial product is naive.

    The ancient Babylonians used oil, does that mean thay should have developed the internal combustion engine?

  • by GreyLurk ( 35139 ) on Thursday June 15, 2017 @07:21AM (#54624427) Homepage Journal

    Just some back of the napkin calculations: So with 44 chanels (4.7% of the spectrum) they could host 575 callers. If they had the 59.7% of the spectrum allocated to TV, they could have hosted around 650 channels, which, by extension would support about 8000 callers. In New York City, a city with more than 7 million people in 1940. So, no, we couldn't have had everyone using cell phones in the 1940's even without FCC meddling. *AT BEST* it would have increased the cellphone user base from 0.01% of the population to 0.11% of the population. Without the geographic cells and spectrum switching tech that AT&T brought about in the 1980s, cell phones would have remained toys of the very wealthy and lucky.

  • "When AT&T wanted to start developing cellular in 1947, the FCC rejected the idea, believing that spectrum could be best used by other services that were not 'in the nature of convenience or luxury.'"

    Whereas broadcast TV - in particular, scores of additional channels on top of the scores of already existing channels - are not "in the nature of convenience or luxury"?

    Oh, I forgot - reaching all American citizens with continual advertising is essential to the health of the nation. Silly moi.

  • A 1949 cellphone would have had to be implemented as a wheeled suitcase. Unfortunately, wheeled luggage was still far in the future, so each cellphone user would have had to be accompanied by a grinning redcap to carry his phone around just like the railroad passengers of the day., search for a 220V outlet before making a call, and give the tubes time to warm up. Hollywood and Broadway people would pride themselves on hiring white redcaps.

  • The ability – financially – to deploy the ground-based network to support cellular.

    IMO there's no way we could have done anything with the spectrum.

  • A small group of incredibly wealthy people who could afford the electronics could have had cell phones 4 decades earlier. Making electronics that could do cellular and be affordable is a fairly recent thing (think mid 80s).

To write good code is a worthy challenge, and a source of civilized delight. -- stolen and paraphrased from William Safire