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This nonagenarian knows more about the cellphone than you — because he invented it

After working from home for over a year, I still have no idea how Zoom backgrounds work, which means the various strangers I interview can look past me to see my ailing succulents, unopened prestige cookbooks and a childhood’s worth of participation trophies.

Unlike me, a supposed “digital native,” Martin Cooper is old enough that cries of “OK, boomer” don’t even apply to him. But he’s at home in the age of digital work. For our virtual interview, he chose to appear before an image of the Earth, captured from outer space. Perched, as it were, on top of the world, he looked like an intergalactic Jewish Santa Claus. I don’t think this is the comparison Cooper intended to suggest, but it kind of makes sense: If you ever celebrated Hanukkah by receiving an iPhone with portrait mode, a Motorola Razr or a Nokia flip phone decorated with a really cool Hello Kitty charm, you have him to thank.

That’s because Cooper, 92, is the father of the cellphone. The Chicago-born son of Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms in their native Ukraine, Cooper served in the Navy during the Korean War and later joined Motorola just as it was becoming a leader in research on transistors, tiny devices that control electrical signals and are integral to almost every electronic device. With his team at Motorola, he debuted the first portable handheld phone in 1973. An unwieldy device so heavy it was known as “the brick,” it was nevertheless a major innovation on the car phone. Cooper was also a key figure in Motorola’s disputes with AT&T, which in the 1970s sought to establish a monopoly over the radio spectrum, or the invisible waves that carry cellphone calls through the air. Arguing that like any other natural resource, the radio spectrum is a kind of “public property,” Cooper lobbied the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to prevent any such monopoly — and ultimately succeeded.

You can get a crash course in the radio spectrum and peruse some pretty funky cellphone prototypes in Cooper’s new memoir, “Cutting the Cord,” which has already been optioned for film by Dana Brunetti, the producer behind tech world sagas like “The Social Network.” I asked Cooper about staying busy during the pandemic, veering into literature after a lifetime in science and, most importantly, whether he’d ever used a song for a ring tone.

His answer was a lesson in digital etiquette from which today’s industry disruptors could all benefit: “It’s kind of obnoxious to be sitting at a table and half a song starts. Bad enough to have a tone by itself.”

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Irene Katz Connelly: What have you been up to during the pandemic?

“Cutting the Cord” will be adapted for film by Dana Brunetti, the producer behind “The Social Network.” Image by Rosetta Books

Martin Cooper: Like everybody else, I’ve been at home. I spent a good part of the time finishing up my book, and I’ve been working very hard trying to persuade people that the cellphone is very important for education. And I keep learning. That’s one of my biggest, most important philosophies: In a complete life, you never stop learning.

What kinds of stuff have you been learning?

I set up goals about learning new things. As an example, I live 10 minutes away from the University of California at San Diego, and they’ve got experts there who are world-renowned for their understanding of the brain. And here I have the opportunity to sit down with these people and get firsthand information. So actually I know a lot about what you’re thinking right now. But I’ve also had some failures. I tried to understand quantum physics — do you know a lot about quantum?

I can’t say I do.

Well, I don’t either. And I tried really hard.

It sounds like you prefer to learn by talking to people, rather than reading books.

There’s some things that can’t be done without a group of people. When Einstein was working on general relativity, if he had an idea that he wanted to exchange with a friend, he would write a letter. A couple weeks later, he’d get an answer, and then he’d write an answer back again. Today, he could look at him face to face and cut the time of interaction down by thousands of times.

You’ve been a scientist all your life, and now you’re venturing into literature with this book. What was that process like?

Well, I had a failed process. I engaged with a collaborator who was going to help me turn this story into a book. She was a remarkable woman, but she took it upon herself to turn me into an author. She wanted to make me like Maya Angelou. The reality is, I love to read Maya Angelou. Her ability to create metaphors is extraordinary. But I can’t do a metaphor for the life of me. So I wasted a huge amount of time before I realized we were never going to finish, and finally started all over again. What you read, if you really read the book, is amateurish in many respects, but it’s my writing.

In the book, there’s this dramatic scene where you meet up with a reporter and make the world’s first cellphone call, on a New York City street corner in 1973. You dial up an engineer at AT&T, your biggest competitor at the time. When you made the call, could you have predicted anything about the massive role cellphones play in our lives now?

We absolutely believed that sometime in the future, everybody would have a cellphone. A joke we told was that someday, when you were born, you’d been assigned a phone number. And if you didn’t answer the phone one day, it meant you’d died. But things like social media, or the cellphone replacing the camera — well, we didn’t have digital cameras in 1973. The internet didn’t exist in 1973. How could we know that a person could get into an argument and solve it instantly, just by pushing a couple buttons?

What’s most surprising to you about the way we use cellphones in the present day?

The most surprising thing is that many people don’t use the cellphone for talking anymore. You know, I do Twitter from time to time. I use Facebook. But talking to somebody is still my primary method of communication.

You’ve already sold the film rights to this book. What parts of your story do you want the movie to capture?

The part that I find most interesting is the conflict between Bell Systems and Motorola. One scene that I think would be a great part of a movie was when I testified before the FCC. This was before we had slide projectors, so I actually had an easel, and I was ripping off pieces of paper to explain all the reasons why Bell Systems was deceiving the world by capturing spectrum when they didn’t really need it. When I got done with this really argumentative presentation, this Bell Systems guy in the back raised his hand and said, “I object. This is a hearing, not a trial.” And the chairman of the commission gladly said, “Yeah, you’re exactly right. And that’s why you can’t object.” That’s the kind of thing I think would go over great in a movie.

Do you have any thoughts about what actor you’d like to play you?

You know, the first thing that comes to mind is Brad Pitt, but he’s just unsuitable. So maybe Bradley Cooper would be a good guy. I’m egotistical enough that I’d like someone who’s better looking and more articulate than I am.


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