October 13, 1983: First American Cell Phone Network Opens in Chicago

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A Brief History

On October 13, 1983, with a network in the Chicago area, Ameritech Mobile Communications (later renamed Ameritech Cellular and then AT&T Mobility) opened the first mobile phone service in the United States.

Digging Deeper

History and Headlines Trivia: The Guinness Book of World Records claims that David Cotorno, one of the early Chicago-area customers, has had the same cell phone number since August 2, 1985, longer than anyone else!  He has been with Ameritech all along. 

Some more History and Headlines Trivia: The term “cellular phone” or “cell phone” is actually a misnomer, as the phones are not cellular, the network is.  They are mobile phones that operate in a cellular network.

The concept of wireless communication goes as far back as the early 20th century, when a British cartoon from 1907 depicted a dating couple talking on mobile phones.  In 1918, the Germans started experimenting with mobile phones on their railroad system, and in 1926, German first-class passengers could make calls while riding on the train.

It was not originally planned for mobile phones to be powered by radio towers (cell phones are really radios) that dot the landscape.  The original mobile radio phones required pressing the send button to talk and releasing it to listen, similar to a walkie-talkie radio.  These radio mobile phones were available from the 1940s on, with calls going to an operator who manually connected the mobile user to a landline telephone.  Over the next few decades, the systems were improved, but such phones were fairly uncommon, and calls were expensive.

In 1947, Bell Labs came up with idea of an hexagonal-shaped pattern of cell towers placed across populated areas.  In 1979, Japan and Scandinavia opened the first analog cellular networks, and the U.S. followed suit in 1983.  In the 1990s, the analog systems were replaced by digital systems, and as more and more cell towers were erected, coverage improved, and prices started lowering, causing the number of customers to skyrocket.

In 1993, IBM introduced the first “smart phone.” Known as Simon, this smart phone was capable of making phone calls and faxes and had paging abilities and PDA (personal digital assistant) functions.  Text messaging was introduced in 1992, and cars have been crashing ever since.  The photo and video features of current cell phones have resulted in a cornucopia of scandalous images that have ended up on the internet.  History and Headlines Fact:  Between 1/3 and 1/2 of all robberies are thefts of cell phones.

Question for students (and subscribers): What will be the next “big thing” in mobile communications?  Let us know your predictions in the comments section below this article.

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Please also read the related History and Headlines articles: “Apple Introduces the iPhone;” and “10 Stupid Things Done With Cell Phones.”

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Goggin, Gerard.  Cell Phone Culture.  Routledge, 2006.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.