With due respect to Alexander Graham Bell, he couldn't possibly have known that his patent for "the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically" would give birth to today's smartphone. Here's how we got there.
We now live in a connected world, and today's smartphones define what it means to be a power user. Want to look up turn-by-turn driving directions on your phone? There's an app for that. There's an app for just about everything, even if they're sometimes tough to find (we're looking at you, Android Marketplace).
But for as much as we rely on our iPhone, Nexus One, or BlackBerry, it wasn't that long ago when you wouldn't think of trying to cram a mobile phone in your pocket. Remember when pagers were all the craze? Like computers, communication devices continue to evolve at a rapid pace, becoming faster, more portable, and increasingly flexible in functionality. It's been a wild ride getting to where we are today, and to pay homage to that journey, we take a look back at 40 of the most important phone models of all time.
Tin Can Telephone
You probably thought we were going to kick things off with Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, but we'll get to that in a moment. It just wouldn't be fair to skip over the so-called tin can telly.
Some of you may have constructed a tin can phone in elementary school as part of a science experiment, and give yourself extra credit if you remember the name Robert Hooke. Considered one of the most important scientists of the 17th century, Hooke discovered a way to "to hear one speak through a wall a yard thick...I have, by the help of a distended wire, propagated the sound to a very considerable distance in an instant." What a smarty pants.
Alexander Graham Bell's "Electrical Speech Machine"
You can't have a retrospective without a little controversy, and ours starts right at the beginning. How so? We're taking the mainstream route and crediting Alexander Graham Bell with introducing the first telephone. In reality, Bell became the first to receive a patent for what would later become the telephone, but it would be unfair to say he was alone in inventing the device. For that, we have to credit a handful of individuals, each of whom had various degrees of influence in what could be considered one of the most important inventions of all time (agriculture, modern medicine, and beer being some of the others).
Pictured above is Bell's first commercial telephone. This consisted of a single transmitter/receiver jammed into a rectangular wooden box. The opening was used both to speak into, and to hear the other party.
In 1877, Alexander Graham Bell, his future father-in-law Gardiner Greene Hubbary, and Thomas Sanders formed what would become the Bell Telephone Company. One year later, the company came up with the Buttersamp receiver, named such because it resembled a dairy butterstamp. If you were to take it apart, you'd find a permanent bar magnet with a coil of wire wrapped around it, along with an iron diaphragm in front of the coil. This would form the basis of many later receivers.
Early on, chatty Cathies would both speak into and listen through the same device, which meant continually moving the Butterstamp from mouth to the ear. Later on, the receiver and transmitter would consist of two different parts.
In hindsight, Mike Brady should have known better than to call up a client on a home pay phone to discuss a potential multi-million dollar deal, but that doesn't mean his idea to install a pay phone in his living room was flawed. Just the opposite — we think it was brilliant. The alternative? Fend off six school-age children, half of whom were girls, in the battle for one phone line, and do so before the advent of call waiting, cell phones for the masses, or Facebook. As if!
Mike had it right, and even offered to increase everyone's allowance to accommodate two phone calls per day. Talk about a fair deal, especially when we can't think of a single episode in which these supposed do-gooders were seen doing any chores — presumably the reason Alice was hired in the first place.
"But I average at least 10 [calls per day]," Jan Brady pleads.
Sure you do, Jan, and since we're all clearly exaggerating, you're also prettier and more popular than Marcia.
Fun Fact: If not for William Gray of Hartford, Connecticut, this famous episode might never exist. It was Gray who first patented the concept of a pay phone over 130 years ago.
Invented (pay phone): 1889
Walter Wilhelm, an electrician by trade, improved upon the Butterstamp receiver and every other phone of the time with his double diaphragm design. Wilhelm phones wouldn't be the first to employ essentially two Butterstamp receivers — one for talking and one for listening — but unlike other phones of the time, it came with two separate chambers and diaphragms.
Other similar looking and functioning phones would follow, but the Wilhelm's fate was sealed when the Wilhelm Telephone Mfg. company tried on more than one occasion to sell its transmitter to Bell. In 1913, Wilhelm Telephone Mfg. went out of business.
We could go on and on about how to use a rotary phone, but then we wouldn't have a reason to embed this unintentionally comical 1 minute how-to video (you're welcome):
Invented:1904 (rotary dial), 1919 (first rotary phone)
Outdoor Phone Booth
William Gray invented the pay phone in 1889, and by 1902, some 81,000 pay phones were scattered across the U.S. But it wasn't until 1905 that the first outdoor phone booth would come to fruition, protecting callers from the elements (and nosy Nellies).
Outdoor phone booths have become nearly non-existent since their heyday, and no one is more bummed about this than Clark Kent.
First Radio Car Phone
As AT&T tells it, a truck driver in St. Louis, Mo. made history when he reached underneath his truck's dash and made the first mobile telephone call. That was in 1946, and by 1948, wireless telephone service had swept through nearly 100 cities and highway corridors. Car phones weren't intended for regular Joes, and instead were used by utilities, truck fleet operators, and reporters.
A bargain by today's standards, the service ran $15 per month, or less than a basic OnStar account. Customers were also charged a per usage fee ranging from 30 to 40 cents per local call.
"Improved technology after 1965 brought a few more channels, customer dialing, and eliminated the cumbersome handset," AT&T explains. "But capacity remained so limited that Bell System officials rationed the service to 40,000 subscribers guided by agreements with state regulatory agencies. For example, 2,000 subscribers in New York City shared just 12 channels, and typically waited 30 minutes to place a call. It was wireless, but with 'strings' attached."
We see what you did there, AT&T.
Western Electric Model 500
The Model 500 would become the standard Bell System telephone after it was introduced in 1949 and is arguably the most recognized design still today. You'll notice we skipped several models in between the Candlestick and Model 500, and that's because the Model 500 represents the end of an evolutionary chain before touch-tone took over.
Millions of Model 500 phones were produced between 1949 to 1984 — more than any other dial telephone, which is one reason they're still around today. Don't believe it? Then you haven't been visiting your grandparents - tsk, tsk.
Ericsson Mobile Telephone System A (MTA)
Apple's iPhone 3GS weighs less than 0.3 pounds. To put this into perspective, the first fully automatic mobile phone system weighed a whopping 88 pounds. That's equivalent to almost 300 iPhones!
Because of its size and weight, calling the MTA "mobile" was a bit of a misnomer, and it usually found permanent installation in a vehicle. Only a few hundred were ever made; they were commercially released in Sweden in 1956. Though it was heavy and unwieldy, the MTA didn't require any manual control.
Remarkably, the cordless phone was conceived as far back as 1956, even though phones wouldn't shed their tails for about another three decades. Dr. Raymond P. Phillips Sr., an African American inventor from Texas, came up with the idea, but due to the racial tensions of the time, he wasn't actually recognized as the inventor by the U.S. and European patent offices until 1987.
In 1969, George Sweigert improved upon the concept and patented a "full duplex wireless communications apparatus." But it was Sony that brought the first cordless phones to market in the 1980s. By the mid-80s, cordless phones exploded in popularity, but there was a problem: Cordless phones were given a frequency of 27MHz, and while this gave them decent range, the sound quality was pretty poor. You also ran the risk of crossing over onto someone else's conversation that was within range, and if that happened, you had to return your phone for one on a different channel (early cordless phones came with one of 10 channels), or learn more about your neighbors than you cared to know.
The FCC would later change the frequency to 47-49MHz. This led to better sound quality with less noise, but it wasn't until 1990 that cordless phones began using the 900MHz frequency. This was a huge leap in sound quality and distance, and cordless phones also came with 100 different channels to choose from.
Today's cordless phones operate mostly operate on the 2.4GHz and, more recently, 5.8GHz frequencies.
Pink Princess Phone
If you grew up with one or more sisters, then you were probably better off spending your allowance on postage stamps and mailing letters to your friends rather than trying to wait for the phone to be free. Sexist? Maybe, but is it not true?
Credit AT&T for recognizing the sales potential in marketing a phone for women, and thus the Pink Princess phone was born. It was compact and light instead of big and bulky, and it even had a light-up dial that could be used as a night light. This made it the perfect bedside companion and helped Ma Bell market more phones to families who already owned one.
Feeling nostalgic? While the original Princess Phone is no longer in production, Crosley sells a reproduction of the 1950s unit, which you can find on Amazon and through other retailers.
Where would Gotham City be if not for the Bat phone? In a world of hurt, that's where. Sure, Commissioner Gordon could still summon Batman with the Bat signal, Gotham's giant searchlight, but that wouldn't have done him, or Gotham City, any good during the day.
A prominent fixture in the 1960s TV series, the Bat phone was a bright red phone that connected directly to a similar looking phone in Bruce Wayne's manor, as well as the Bat Cave.
The term "Bat phone" is sometimes used today to describe specialized phones with direct connections or without any wait times, like those found in call centers, but it was also first revived in the modern comics era in Detective Comics #786 (November 2003) as an encrypted cell phone.
Ram Horn Phone (Flintstones)
During the Stone Age, Bedrock was the place to be. Home of Fred and Wilma Flinstone, as well as a host of other memorable characters, Bedrock had it all, including telephones!
Similar in style to the Western Electric Model 500, the Flintstones called each other on phones consisting of a ram horn, which was used on a number of other prehistoric gadgets as well. Everyone's favorite modern Stone Age family even owned a wall-mounted phone! And if we're to take the Flinstones as being historically accurate, we can credit Fred as the first person to ever call into work sick.
Western Electric Model 1500
Western Electric's Model 1500 sounded the death knell for rotary dials and ushered in the era of touch tone (push button) dialing. Essentially a touch tone replacement for the Model 500, it contained 10 buttons consisting of numerals 1-9, plus asterisk and pound keys.
The beige model (pictured above) was ugly as sin, but these weren't the only standout features. Handset and line cords were hardwired, and the 1500 series would include several variants with additional feature-sets, such as 2-line sets, industrial phones, and other odds and ends.
Get Smart Shoe Phone
Who can ever forget Maxwell Smart's shoe phone? Not us, because this is only one of coolest inventions ever! Not only could Max make and receive phone calls on his size-whatever shoe, he could inflict some real damage, too. By dialing the number 117, the shoe turned into a gun, and we've yet to see a pair of Adidas that are able to do that (not even Gilbert Arenas').
Of course, the shoe phone never took off as a viable item outside of being a Hollywood prop, and it probably never will. But the fact that it doesn't actually exist as a real-world device didn't deter us one bit from including it in our list. Why? Because long after the iPhone and BlackBerry become forgotten relics, people will still remember — and wish for — a shoe phone/pistol.
It would be another decade before the first commercial cell phone would make it to market, but in 1973, much of the groundwork had already been laid. It was during this time that Motorola developed a prototype, the DynaTAC (DYNamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) portable phone. But Motorola's work was far from finished.
"The DynaTAC cellular system required phone calls to be switched from cell to cell as users traveled," Motorola explains. "Making that happen without a high rate of dropped calls required innovative engineering. And foremost, Motorola had to create a high capacity system that worked with both portable phones and mobile car phones."
Motorola tackled the problem by coming up with a concept involving a bunch of overlapping cells in a geographic area. Each cell contained a low powered transmitter that allowed frequencies to be bounced to cells that were farther away.
Micky Mouse Phone
If there's one thing Disney knows how to do, it's how to make a buck. We have no idea how much the Mickey Mouse phone netted Disney, but we'd guess it was lot (cryogenics isn't cheap).
Sold throughout the 1980s, the Mickey Mouse phone was a hit for boys and girls alike. It also boasted a pretty fleshed out feature-set, including animated controls (Mickey's arm and head moved when the phone would ring), last number redial, both tone and pulse capabilities, and a switchable ringer that included a normal ringer or one that cycled through five different phrases in Mickey's original voice.
Throughout the years, several other models would follow with different designs and characters.
Hot Lips Phone
Another throwback to the Eighties, the Hot Lips phone flew in the face of ergonomics. Both tacky and unwieldy, this phone was a hit nonetheless thanks to talkative teen and pre-teen girls, and we imagine Andy Dick probably owned one too.
Remakes of the original Hot Lips phone are still sold today, which, along with the Hamburger phone, you can find here. And unlike the 1980s, you can rest assured that if you bought this online, it probably won't come with dried saliva from shoppers who pick one up in a store and proceed to mock make-out with it. Gross.
Airfone (Airplane Phone)
According to reports, during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many of the emergency phone calls made from victims aboard those fated flights originated from Verizon's Airfones, those plastic handsets integrated into seatbacks of many airplanes. Airfone installed the first seatback telephone in 1987, but the air-to-ground communication had been around even before then. In 1980, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted Airfone (then owned by GTE) a nationwide air-to-ground telephone service license under experimental authority.
Nokia has released more mobile phones than we care to count, and it all began with the Mobira Senator. This was Nokia's first ever mobile phone, designed in the boxtype form factor and part of the 1G generation.
The Mobira Senator was never destined for pants pockets, but was actually a car phone. A good thing too, because the device weighed about 21 pounds, which gives us a hernia just thinking about it. The Senator was comprised of a boxy design that looked more like a radio than it did a telephone.
Ugly, heavy, and expensive (just like our ex), little did the 1980s crowd know that Nokia — and mobile phones in general — would one day become more popular than a Rubik's Cube.
Motorola DynaTAC 8000X
When you think of old cell phones — the kind you see portrayed in early 1980s flicks and related spoofs, like Night at the Roxbury — the one you're likely picturing is Motorola's DynaTAC 8000X. The DynaTAC 8000X used to be a sure sign of a big shot, but today those ancient cell phones are laughbly outdated, just like our leisure suits (no worries Larry, you're still the man).
After submitting several prototypes to the FCC, the DynaTAC 8000X became the world's first commercial handset, and the first mobile phone able to connect to the telephone network without the aid of a mobile operator. It could also be toted around by the phone's owner, as long as you had a free hand.
Only the wealthy could afford one at the time of the release, however, as the handset retailed for just under $4,000.
In 1989, Motorola took cell phones in a completely new direction with the MicroTAC, the world's first flip phone, at least in part. Unlike modern flip phones, the MicroTAC folded away just the mouth piece, but it was effective for the time. At 12.3 ounces, the MicroTAC was the lightest phone on the market.
It was also pretty expensive, selling for between $2,500 and $3,500. Yes, technological advances had been made in the MicroTAC, but cell phones still hadn't yet become ubiquitous, so they were all pretty pricey.
Not all was as it appeared on the MicroTAC. For example, a small hole on the front of the mouthpiece gave the impression that there was a microphone underneath it, but the mic was actually located higher up behind another hole on the main part of the phone. And the retractable antennae was for aesthetics only, as the MicroTAC came with an internal antennae.
Motorola Bag Phone
Motorola designed its bag phone with a shoulder strap so that high power execs could chat while on the go, but because it was so heavy, most people who owned one usually left it in the car.
The phone itself wasn't very heavy, and the bulk came from the transreceiver and battery, both of which were stored in the bag. The phone was surprisingly capable, and owners could expect up to two hours of talk time and 48 hours of standby time.
Picking up where the MicroTAC left off, Motorola's StarTAC took the flip phone concept to a new level. It was the first cell phone to sport a clamshell design, a concept that would remain popular for over two decades.
At the time of its release, the StarTAC was the smallest cell phone available, but it was still expensive, checking in at about $1,000. The StarTAC was able to receive SMS messages, and a later version would allow users to send texts as well. It had a vibrating ring, weighed 3.1 ounces, and used an optional lithium-ion battery.
Everybody's familiar with the BlackBerry, the creation of Canadian company Research in Motion (RIM), which successfully meshed PDA functionality with a cell phone in a single unit. And let's not forget the QWERTY keyboard, which has become a staple of BlackBerry devices.
But what you might not know is that the BlackBerry started off as a glorified pager, not a smartphone. In 1998, RIM created a wireless handheld device called the RIM 850/950. The two-way pager included a thumb-keyboard and was capable of handling email, contacts, and calendaring.
A year later, the BlackBerry 5790 was born, kicking off the transition from a pager-like device to more of a PDA. Several models would follow, and the BlackBerry became so popular that it was dubbed the "CrackBerry." Now a dominant player in the smartphone market, RIM trails only Symbian in smartphone OS market share.
Surprisingly modern for its time, the Nokia 3210 was a smashing success, though not for any single reason. All tallied, Nokia sold about 160 million units of the 3210, earning it a spot on our list.
The Nokia 3210 was one of the first cell phones to sport an internal antennae. It also included a backlit monochrome screne, 40 ringtones, predicative text (T9), picture text messaging, and even a bit of gaming capabilities. Three games came preinstalled, including Snake, Memory, and Rotation.
Another popular feature, the Nokia 3210 also supported user exchangeable front and back covers.
You probably never owned Sharp's J-SH04, and neither did anyone you know (it was only released in Japan). You've never even seen it, and we're willing to bet this is the first you've heard of this cell phone. So what the frack is it doing on our list?
Well, the J-SH04 was the first mobile phone ever to include a built-in camera, a feature now commonplace on even the lowliest of cell phones. It included an atrocious 110,000 pixel CMOS image sensor for taking awful pictures that could be viewed on the device's 256-color STN display.
Cell phone camera quality has improved significantly in the past decade to the point of rivaling some standalone point-n-shoot digital cameras. And yet one of the most popular uses is still for snapping sultry shots of uncovered body parts and then regretting it later, isn't that right Greg Oden?
Sidekick (Danger Hiptop)
If you don't remember "Hiptop," maybe you'll recognize the name "Danger," which was associated with a massive data outage that affected about 800,000 smartphone users in 2009 (and is Austin Powers' middle name). Sidekick owners lost all kinds of personal data, including emails, contacts, photos, and more, all the result of a server failure. So how does Danger fit into all this?
The data center that failed belonged to Microsoft, but had been purchased from Danger in 2008. As Microsoft explains it, "Sidekick runs on Danger's proprietary service that Microsoft inherited when it acqjuired Danger in 2008. The Danger service is built on a mix of Danger created tecnologies and third party technologies," which was Redmond's way of passing the buck.
The still popular Sidekick began life as the Danger Hiptop in 2002 before being rebranded under T-Mobile. A trademark characteristic of the Sidekick is its slide-out screen (which flipped up in earlier models) revealing a physical QWERTY keyboard underneath. As unlimited text messaging plans started to emerge, the Sidekick became extremely popular among teenagers and young adults.
Motorola RAZR V3
Motorola sold more than 50 million RAZR phones in its first year of release, making it the most popular clamshell cell phone of all time. The RAZR boasted a stylish design, super slim profile, and a few relatively uncommon features for its time, including an electroluminescent keypad.
Other luxurious features included a 2.2-inch TFT LCD screen, 10MB of internal memory, MPEG-4 video playback, and an external color screen. Five years ago, this was the phone everyone wanted. And today? It means you're lame and woefully out of date.
Built by UTStarcom, the F-1000 was Vonage's first Wi-Fi phone, which meant that Vonage subscribers could make calls from any open hotspot.
Early units were buggy and a little bit difficult to configure, but even still, most considered the pairing of a Wi-Fi phone with Vonage to be a winning combination. The woohoo jingle? Not so much.
First Cordless Phones for Skype
Skype rocks for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the ability to make free and low-cost phone calls all around the world. The downside? Being tethered to your PC. That all changed when phones for Skype were introduced.
In 2006, Skype announced the first cordless phones compatible with its VoIP software, including the Philips VOIP841 and Netgear's cordless phone. Cordless handsets were the logical next step for Skype, and gave cheapskates penny-pinchers a viable alternative to Vonage.
First Wi-Fi Phones for Skype
Around the same time Skype announced the first batch of cordless phones for its VoIP software, the company also unveiled its first Wi-Fi phones, including one each from Belkin, Edge-Core, Netgear, and SMC. Each phone came with the Skype software preinstalled and could store contacts and display who was available to talk. To make a call, you just needed to be in range of an open access point.
No matter how you feel about Apple, the iPhone ranks as arguably the most important smartphone of all time.
A newcomer to the cell phone business, Apple took the mobile world by storm when it introduced the iPhone in June 2007. Much of the hype centered on the iPhone's touch interface, and while it wasn't the first smartphone to sport a touchscreen, it was the first one to get it right. Not only was the interface mostly responsive, navigation was a breeze.
The iPhone also played a integral role in promoting the mobile app market, and espeically in the success of Apple's App Store, which surpassed the 3 billion download mark in the first week of 2010.
Not without its weaknesses, the iPhone received criticism for its short battery life, proprietary battery, and tight integration with iTunes. Nevertheless, Time Magazine dubbed the iPhone the "Invention of the Year," and we'd have to agree.
HTC Dream (T-Mobile G1)
Apple wasn't the only one hot to trot in the mobile market, Google wanted to jump in the ring too. But instead of developing a handset of its own, Google continued to work on its open-source Android platform, now the fastest growing mobile OS on the planet.
HTC's Dream, or T-Mobile G1 as it's known in the U.S. market, became the first smartphone to run Google's OS, prompting many to wonder if this would be the iPhone killer. The G1 didn't live up to that designation, but it did introduce the world to Android and Google's Android Marketplace.
Thanks to the Android platform, the G1's greatest attribute is its open nature. It didn't take long for modders to start churning out third-party ROMs to address the handset's shortcomings, like the inability to install apps to an SD card instead of the paltry amount of internal memory.
GoldVish Le Million
This, folks, is what the most expensive cell phone on the planet looks like, as recognized by the Guinness World Records. Named after its price tag, the Le Million runs 1 million Euros, or about $1.35 million.
Only 100 of these phones were ever made. Each one sports 18K white gold and 1,800 diamonds totaling 120 carats. But don't worry if $1.35 million is too rich for your blood — GoldVish also makes other models starting at a more affordable $25,000. What a bargain!
Apple iPhone 3GS
After the iPhone came the iPhone 3G with support for 3G data, and then the iPhone 3GS. In his review of the 3GS variant, former Maximum PC Editor-in-Chief Will Smith said, "Finally, a no-compromise smartphone suitable for mass consumption."
Part of what he was referring to was the snappier feel of the OS, due in part to a faster CPU, more memory, and better equipped GPU. Put together, it all added up to a more responsive experience with up to half the load times on some applications.
The Pre's hype was high in the beginning, and so were the stakes. With Palm struggling financially and the company's future very much in question, the Pre was supposed to turn the company's fortunes around. But the much ballyhooed smartphone had the unfortunate timing of debuting not long before the Motorola Droid (see below).
"If we could have launched at Verizon prior to the Droid, I think we would have gotten the attention the Droid got. And since I believe we have a better product, I think we could have even done better," explained Jon Rubinstein, Palm CEO.
Palmed popped its webOS cherry with the Pre, ditching Palm OS for the Linux-based kernel. The Pre also made headlines for its advertised ability to sync with iTunes, a feature that didn't sit well with Apple. Palm and Apple proceeded to play a game of cat and mouse with iTunes compatibility, where each company would update their software (iTunes and webOS) to break (Apple) and restore (Palm) the ability to sync.
Like the G1, Motorola's Droid was hyped as a potential iPhone killer, and it too didn't quite live up that designation. But it did close the gap considerably, as well as inject some much needed nitro into Android.
Whereas the G1 felt sluggish at times, the Droid's faster processor and beefier overall system specs finally started to do justice for Android. The Droid also had the advantage of Verizon's network, while G1 owners had to put up with T-Mobile's dismal 3G coverage.
Droid was also the first smartphone to ship with version 2.0 of Android, which featured a revamped UI, HTM5 support, Microsoft Exchange support, built-in flash support for Camera, and a bunch of other welcome enhancements.
Yet another candidate for the coveted title of "iPhone Killer," the Nexus One is the first smartphone — or "superphone," as Google likes to call it — to be seriously considered for the distinction.
Built by HTC, the Nexus One is marketed and sold by Google, which also makes it the first true "Google Phone." There's a lot to like in the Nexus One, including the 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, 512MB of internal memory, and 5.0MP camera.
So why isn't the Nexus One killing the iPhone in sales? One reason is because it was initially only offered for use on T-Mobile. Though users can purchase an unlocked Nexus One, doing so costs $529. And while existing T-Mobile subscribers can upgrade to the Nexus One for just $179, the discount is limited to those on an Individual 500 plan - those paying more for a Family plan need not apply. Boo!
More recently, Google has begun offering a second version compatible with AT&T's 3G network, but the non-subsidized phone still runs $529, so it's not likely to present a significant threat to Apple's iPhone sales.
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