What Was the First Mobile Device?

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins
Mobile devices have evolved drastically since the 1980s.
Mobile devices have evolved drastically since the 1980s.

The Motorola Corporation dominated the early decades of cell phone production in the United States, largely due to the contract work it performed for the U.S. military, which had held the technology hostage since the 1920s. The Federal Communications Commission approved commercial cell phone use in the early 1980s, and on 6 March 1983, after 15 years and $100,000,000 US Dollars (USD) of research, Motorola unveiled the first commercially available mobile device, the analog DynaTAC 8000X. Its iconic oversize profile stood 13 inches (or 33 cm) tall and 3.5 inches (or 88.9 mm) thick, weighing in at nearly 2 lbs. (or 0.9 kg).

The company had a prototype of the DynaTAC completed as early as 1973, but without the permission to sell it to ordinary citizens. This period, before and just after Motorola's commercial release, is considered the first generation of cellular networks, or "first gen." Cell phone service providers in 2011 regularly boast of 4G, or "fourth generation," coverage.

The Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage (DynaTAC) mobile device needed a vast antenna network to accomplish its goal of go-anywhere communications. The first two networks to offer cell phone service for this phone in the United States took shape later in 1983. One was in Chicago, a partnership between Motorola and the Illinois Bell phone company. The second network to offer service for this mobile device took root in the Washington, DC, area and was controlled by the American Radio Telephone Service and Motorola. By the early 1990s, every major American city had cell phone coverage, though not with the reliability of modern 4G networks.

By this time, other phone manufacturers like Nokia and IBM had begun to introduce alternative models of the mobile device. This ended Motorola's longtime monopoly on the product, at least in the United States. It was the Northern European countries of Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark that actually boast of having the first commercial cellular network, though, with radio devices made by the Ericsson Corporation that were far from mobile. This happened in 1981, two years earlier than in the United States.

Nevertheless, some believe the dawn of truly mobile communications was not until 1989, when Motorola released the first undeniably hand-held phone — the MicroTAC 9800X with the first flip-phone dial pad. Until then, most of the company's cell phones were installed in vehicles, since they could not be carried comfortably in a pocket. In 1992, the company hit another milestone, when it released the first digital cell phone, the Motorola International 3200.

Discussion Comments


Before most people had a cell phone of their own, my husband had a mobile phone installed in his truck. This was paid for by his company so they could get in touch with their supervisors who were on the road.

It was pretty exciting to have access to this mobile communication when so few people had this available to them. I remember the phones being very heavy and bulky, but they got the job done.

Now all of their supervisors carry a company cell phone with them. My husband will leave his personal cell phone in his truck and carry his work phone with him when he is on the job.


Many times I have wondered what we did before cell phones. This comes from someone who was around when we had an old wooden phone hanging on the wall and had party lines.

I have had many Motorola phones throughout the years. Most of these have been a free, basic phone given to me by my cell phone provider.

Even though they can be distracting for young drivers, I am glad that my kids had cell phones when they began driving on their own.

My mom still doesn't have a cell phone of her own. She will take my dads when she is going to be traveling very far, but sees no need for one otherwise.


@bluespirit - I am about the same age as you and not surprisingly I bought my first self phone at about the same time, though I can't remember how much the plan was.

However, I thought it was interesting that my husband who graduated high school in 1987 also bought his first cell phone in 2003. He says he was one of the last in his group of friends to get a phone as well. So it looks like all of the non-cutting-edge-technology people must have gotten in around the early 2000's.

He remembers that his cell phone was huge in comparison to the phones now and it was through Sprint, and it was a flip phone (they must have been very popular in the '03's)!

I have not ventured into the fancy mobile device applications but I still love my wireless mobile device, what did we do without them?!


It is amazing how much has happened since the first mobile device was used, in fact I just heard a statistic that over eighty percent of Americans now have cell phones.

I graduated from high school in 2000 and I felt like I was one of the last people that I knew to get a cell phone and that was in 2003. It was a plan that was expensive because it was nation-wide and it was a whopping forty dollars a month. I thought it was so fancy because it was a flip phone and I was also excited that it would pocket dial people like so many of my friend's phones.

Now I have a phone with internet service, quick access to my emails, picture messaging, and a whole slew of fun apps and my bill is in the low hundreds every month. Incredible.

Does anyone else remember their first cell phone and when they bought it?

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    • Mobile devices have evolved drastically since the 1980s.
      By: sepy
      Mobile devices have evolved drastically since the 1980s.