Mobile Phone Mavericks

IEEE Fellows helped ring in the age of cellphones

7 July 2014

This article is part of our series highlighting IEEE Fellows in celebration of the Fellow program’s 50th-anniversary year.

Four IEEE Fellows helped make possible the pocket-sized communications devices that many people now find they can’t live without and to do so built the first-generation cellphone network.

achieveCooper Photo: Eloy Alonso/Reuters/Corbis

IEEE Life Fellow Martin Cooper is credited with developing the first handheld cellphone. As a general manager in the 1970s at Motorola in Schaumburg, Ill., Cooper conceived of the first handheld mobile phone and led the team that developed and brought it to market. That model, the DynaTac 8000X, sold for US $3,995, weighed nearly a kilogram and was more than 25 centimeters long. Cooper predicted that wireless phones eventually would be small enough to fit in a breast pocket, according to the article, "Evolution of Cell Phone Technology," available on the IEEE Global History Network (GHN).

Cooper was elevated to Fellow in 1976 for “contributions to radiotelephony.” Today, he is chairman of the board of Dyna, an R&D company in Del Mar, Calif., which he helped to found. Dyna focuses on broadband technology.

He is also cited as the first person to make a cellular phone call. On 3 April, 1973, while walking along Sixth Avenue in New York City and being trailed by reporters, Cooper used the DynaTac 8000X to call one of his chief competitors, and now an IEEE Fellow, Joel S. Engel.

achieveEngel Photo: IEEE

At the time, Engel was manager of the corporate planning department at AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories, in Florham Park, N.J. According to an oral history on GHN, Engel’s first major efforts were on mobile telephone systems engineering. From 1967 to 1972, he and others at AT&T helped come up with the Advanced Mobile Phone System, the basic plan for cellular, mobile radio, and telephone communications. It was accepted by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission a decade later and put into national use in the 1980s.

Engel then moved to Ameritech, one of the regional Bell operating companies, in Chicago, and set up its new laboratories. There he worked on developing digital, fiber-optic, e-mail, and voice-messaging technologies. In 1980, he was elevated to Fellow for “contributions to the concepts and to the implementation of spectrally efficient, cellular mobile telephone systems.” These days he is president of JSE Consulting, in Armonk, N.Y.

achieveFrenkiel Photo: IEEE

In the late 1960s, Engel had worked with Richard H. Frenkiel at Bell Labs, in Murray Hill, N.J. With their system, Frenkiel and Engel shaped the basic cellular system architecture. They developed a networking system that divided cities into cells, small coverage areas that form the basis of today’s cellphone systems. Frenkiel invented a concept that simplified the process of adding smaller cells to a cellular network as more customers wanted service. The network tracked mobile telephones in cars and other vehicles and switched calls from cell to cell as the telephone moved through an area. In doing so, the engineers solved a number of complex problems, such as how cellular systems locate vehicles and how calls made from moving vehicles can be handed off from cell to cell.

Frenkiel was elevated to Fellow in 1998 “for contributions to the theory and design of cellular mobile telecommunications.” He is now a senior advisor at the Wireless Information Network Laboratory at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

In 1994, he and Engel were each awarded the U.S. National Medal of Technology.

The three men continued to be honored for their work. They shared the 2013 Charles Stark Draper Prize, awarded by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, with two others. The prize—which comes with a US $500,000 honorarium—is given to engineers whose accomplishments have benefited society.


achieveEngel Photo: IEEE

The history of cellphones would not be complete without including the contributions of Amos E. Joel Jr. The Life Fellow, who died in 2008, is credited with inventing the switching device that opened the way for the cellular phone business. His switching concept made mobile phones more practical over great distances. Joel, who received more than 70 patents, was probably best known for a 1972 patent that allows a cellphone user to make an uninterrupted call while moving from one cell region to another. That mechanism made mobile telephony widely available by allowing a multitude of callers to use the limited number of available frequencies simultaneously and by allowing the seamless switching of calls from cellphone tower to tower as callers traveled.

Joel spent his entire career at Bell Labs, working there for 43 years until he retired in 1983.

He was elevated to Fellow in 1980 “for contributions to the concepts and to the implementation of spectrally efficient, cellular mobile telephone systems.” He also received the 1992 IEEE Medal of Honor for “fundamental contributions to and leadership in telecommunications switching systems.” In 1993 he was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Technology.

In Joel’s obituary published in The New York Times, Frank Vigilante, one of Joel’s supervisors at Bell Labs, is quoted as saying, “Without his invention, there wouldn’t be all these people walking around with cellphones. He really allowed that business to form and to be a business.”

Visit the IEEE Fellow website to learn more about the Fellow program. Nominations for the class of 2016 are being accepted until March 2015.

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