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A Telecomunications Legacy

Jamal Raslan

The evolution of telephones, from tin cans to tiny computers.

It’s hard to imagine a day without our smartphones since they have become an important accessory in our lives, developing over the years to now incorporate functions that were previously offered by our notebooks, planners, cameras and portable music players a mere 20 years ago. Of course, we have come a long way since people used the acoustic tin can in the 1600s right until the 19th century, when the telephone patent filed by Alexander Graham Bell expired and other telephone companies started developing their own electrical telephones.

Image appearing on an old advertisement for the acoustic phone manufactured by The Consolidated Telephone Co., circa 1886.
Origins: Landlines, Analogue and Rotary Telephones

“Mr Watson, come here - I want to see you.”

The above were the eternal words of Alexander Graham Bell, often credited as the man who invented the telephone. The inventor was, however, the first to own a patent, for the short-range telephone, given to him on 7 March 1876. He later also successfully conducted the first long-distance telephone call, and then the first two-way call between Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1876.

Alexander Graham Bell, telephone link between New York City and Chicago

Throughout the 1890s to the 1930s, the short-range phone took on many versions, each an upgrade from their predecessors. Its most famous form during this period was the candlestick phone - a phone with a transmitter that the caller speaks into while holding the receiver against one ear. You might have seen these in old, black-and- white movies.

The candlestick phone - so-called because the two pieces are hung on a stand akin to a candlestick when not in use - then evolved to become the classic rotary phone, with the mouthpiece and receiver combined into a single unit for ease of use.

A Modern Take

The progress towards the first ever cellular phones began in earnest from the 1960s. On 18 November 1963, the Bell Telephone Company - established by Bell’s father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard in 1877 - unveiled the first electronic touch-dial phone system with touch-tone dialing. This then became the worldwide standard for telecommunication signalling.

Some 10 years later, in April 1973, the world’s first mobile phone was created - a prototype that was made from handheld subscriber equipment by Motorola researcher, Martin Cooper. It was able to give a caller 30 minutes of talk-time and took about 10 hours to charge. It is said that Martin called a rival telecommunications company and let them know he was talking to them on a mobile phone. This prototype was a first major step into mobile phone technology.

The Motorola MicroTAC was the first mobile phone that was truly easy to carry around.

The 80s saw a couple of noteworthy designs. Firstly, the cordless phone became a huge hit with the public. A fixture in almost every home and office, the cordless phone used a radio link to replace the wires between the receiver and the body. It was created by jazz musician Teri Pall in 1965 but only became popular much later. Next was the MicroTAC, the world’s first portable phone launched in 1989. It came with an innovative new “flip” design”, where the mouthpiece folded over the keypad.

Up until the MicroTAC, most cellular phones were installed as car phones or used by the military due to their bulk and size and the inability to fit them into a jacket pocket.

Mobile Convenience and Smart Gadgets
The iconic Nokia 3310 phone that has now become a part of modern pop culture.

The late 90s and early 2000s saw a surge of commercially viable mobile phones, with much credit going to mobile phone manufacturer NOKIA. They catered to users with interchangeable faceplates, customizable designs, the first WAP browser, internal antenna, T9 Text messaging, and eventually an LCD screen and internet connectivity. Their 3310 model is a famous legacy from this time, even finding a place in current pop culture as a meme.

BlackBerry Quark series it is one of most popular among the first- generation BlackBerry models

The decade of 2000 saw the mobile phone evolving at an even faster pace. It saw the world’s first camera phone with the Sanyo SCP-5300 clamshell phone, followed by Sony Ericsson’s phones that offered the best music playing qualities at the time. BlackBerry became a major brand during this period with a phone, PDA, and e-mail system all in one hand-held phone that became a hit with business executives on the go.

This decade was also when mobile phones started becoming an accessory, with the Motorola Razr becoming a hit as a fashion phone due to its sleek and thin profile. From this point on, smartphones evolved quite exponentially with companies designing mobile phones capable of emailing, faxing, and surfing the internet. Manufacturers tested on a number of functionalities - from sliding, flipping, rotating, multiple keyboards and even the stylus, touchscreen smartphones eventually made their way into the market via the original iPhone, unveiled in June 2007. Apple’s smartphone with its combination of multimedia functions, large colour display, with a finger-friendly user interface became a hit with consumers, and a benchmark for all smartphones since.

Motorola Razr become popular because of its thin profile (Left). iPhone, the first generation is a game-changer in mobile phone industry up until now (right).

The smartphone is an amazing piece of technology. Packing processing and memory power that is more powerful than desktops two decades ago, smartphones started out as a tool for business users featuring keypads before evolving into the touchscreen gadgets that have come to represent the modern digital world that is our current domain. It is easy to forget that we carry in our hands a small computer daily, one that has become the cornerstone of our modern living.


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