Happy 30th, jerk

April 3 rd came and went, and I’m sure everyone forgot the birthday of their favourite toy.

On that day in 1973, for better or for worse, a Motorola researcher by the name of Martin Cooper made a call from the corner of 56 th and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.

The nature of that first call was not as benign as were Alexander Graham Bell’s first words on the telephone in 1876. Instead of "Come here Watson. I need you" – a plea to his assistant Thomas Watson – Cooper called up the competition to brag.

The call went through to Joel Engel, the head researcher of AT&T’s Bell Labs. AT&T was focusing its efforts on mobile car phones at the time, and Motorola decided to take a different tack and produce a phone that was truly mobile.

Cooper’s first words? "Joel, I’m calling you from a real cellular phone!"

It wouldn’t be the last time someone with a cell phone acted like a jerk in New York City, but it was the beginning of a new telecommunications trend that helped make the world a little bit smaller.

The phone that was first used was not small at all, however. The main case was over 10 inches long, not including the antenna, and the batteries were only good for about 20 minutes.

Now after 30 years of evolution, with the most significant jumps in service and capability coming in the last five years, the cell phone is ubiquitous. According to Wired Magazine, almost 140 million Americans use cell phones. Health Canada believes there are about 9.5 million cell phones in use in Canada.

Drops in price, the creation of more flexible user plans, and the switch from analog to digital technology in recent years have led to a boom in personal cell phone sales. The fact that people can get service just about anywhere these days, thanks to the rapid expansion of microwave tower networks, has also helped the cause considerably.

The phones themselves are small, and come loaded with a lot of cool features. Some phones have built-in cameras to take and send digital pictures; some phones can connect to the Internet using tiny colour monitors; some phones can function as pagers, walkie-talkies, and instant messengers; some phones can be used to store music and data; some phones can be used to play games. If your cell phone is just a phone these days, you’re usually dating yourself a couple of years.

Still, not everybody loves cell phones unconditionally.

While they do save lives in emergency situations, a growing number of governments and institutions are pushing the line that they actually go a long way in creating those emergency situations – especially when the user is behind the wheel of a car.

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