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What Were the Earliest Cell Phones Like?

Diana Bocco
Updated Feb 28, 2024
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The earliest cell phones were far from portable. In fact, the earliest cell phones were not even phones; they were radios. Mobile rigs were the first version of a portable phone. They were used in taxis and police cars as early as 1930, and eventually became popular as a way of communication among the regular population. Mobile rigs required a base station and a hand-held device, and could be used either from home, or installed in cars and boats.

The earliest actual cell phones were released by Ericsson in 1971. The phone, called MTB (Mobile Telephone system B) was released first in Sweden and then in Norway and Finland. The system never expanded to other countries, and lasted until 1983 with only 600 customers. The MTB weighed 20 pounds (9 kg) and it was extremely expensive to install and use. A typical cell phone battery lasted for about 35 minutes of talking time, and then had to be recharged for 10 hours.

The earliest cell phones to be truly portable were released by Motorola in 1973. By 1983, the DynaTAC 8000X weighed two pounds (907 g) and was about 11 inches (37.9 cm) long. "The brick," as it was known by users, sold for $3995 US Dollars (USD). It took Motorola seven years to amass a million customers. The earliest cell phones to have a true network were released in Saudi Arabia in 1981, followed a month later by a vastly superior system in the Nordic countries. The earliest cell phones were not only expensive to buy, but also to use. Companies charge a line rental fee of about $6 USD a month, plus 50 cents per minute of talking time.

In the 1990s, Second Generation Cellulars (or 2G) were introduced, and smaller phones became the norm. This was possible in part because 2G phones were digital rather than analog as previous phones, which allowed for smaller batteries and more advanced technology. Analog phones also had another serious drawback: It was easy for somebody to clone the phone and charge calls to somebody else's number. It was also extremely easy to listen to private conversations using a simple scanner.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Diana Bocco
By Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco, a versatile writer with a distinct voice, creates compelling long-form and short-form content for various businesses. With a data-focused approach and a talent for sharing engaging stories, Diana’s written work gets noticed and drives results.
Discussion Comments
By stoneMason — On Nov 25, 2013

@turquoise-- The coverage of 70s and 80s cell phones were horrible. I had to pay something like $30 per month and probably talked for only 15 minutes per month. It was so hard to get a signal. The ringtones were very funny too.

I think we were kind of late in the US to use cell phones. I was the only one among my friends to have one in the 80s. I remember when I went to Europe in the late 90s, everyone had a cell phone and it was still not popular in the US yet. It took us a few years to catch up but now we have some of the best phones in terms of technology.

By turquoise — On Nov 25, 2013

@burcidi-- Those bricks were unbelievable. My dad had one and I remember that the battery was so bad that he had to plug it in when he had to make a phone call. It also had its own case. There was no way you could carry it in on you. You had to put it in a handbag and I think it came with some sort of carrying case as well.

I think the coverage was okay but then again, my dad didn't use it that frequently.

By burcidi — On Nov 24, 2013

I remember what cell phones looked like in the 80s. Of course, no one I knew personally owned one. They were very rare and expensive, so basically reserved for the wealthy. But I remember seeing them on TV and they looked huge! I always wondered how people used them.

Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco, a versatile writer with a distinct voice, creates compelling long-form and short-form content for various...
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