Five billion people worldwide own a cell phone as of 2019, the number is probably more today in 2022. Cell phones are everywhere and can do almost anything. We sometimes forget our smartphones can even make phone calls! But did you know the first cell phone cost $10,000 in today’s money? And before the first cell phone, the only way to make a wireless call was using a phone so big it had to be installed in your car? Let’s explore the history of cell phones!

Discover the history of cell phones for kids

We've covered the history of computers, video game history, and the history of robotics. Now it's time to dive into how cell phones evolved!

Car Phones (pre 1980s)

Before the 1980s, the only way to make a call was using a phone connected to a wire connected directly to a telephone line or by using a “car phone.” The first car phone was made available in 1946. The reason this phone could barely be called a “mobile” phone was because it weighed 80 pounds (36 kg)! The phone also had to be connected to a car because the phone required so much power that only a car battery was powerful enough to power it. Car phones required so much power and the car phone network had so little capacity because they connected to one far away antenna and all the car phones used the same antenna.

By 1948 there were 4,000 car phones and 117,000 calls per month. The service was really expensive too - in today’s money it cost $176 per month plus around $4 per call! The service’s high price meant only very rich people could afford to use this service. Since there was only one antenna in a city, the service also had very limited capacity. By 1960, a car phone customer in New York City would have to wait up to 30 minutes to place a call since 2,000 customers had to share only 12 call slots. Car phones weren’t super popular and were more of a luxury for those who can afford it.

The first cell phone (1980s - 1990s)

In 1973, Motorola engineer Martin Cooper unveiled the first mobile phone, the DynaTAC 8000X. During the press conference, he made the first official cell phone call to the landline connected phone of a rival engineer at AT&T. Even though the phone was unveiled in 1973 it took another 10 years to build the cell phone towers to support a higher capacity mobile phone network.

The major innovation for the cell phone was a network of evenly spaced apart cell phone towers to relay signals. Cell tower antennae are spaced at most 2 miles apart. A cell phone would only need to connect to its closest cell tower and from there the cell tower can transfer the signal to landline cables.

When the DynaTAC 8000X hit store shelves in 1983 it cost $4000 (equivalent to more than $10,000 today) and weighed 2.5 lbs (1.1 kg). The phone only had enough battery for 35 minutes of talking and was 9 inches tall (22 cm). The phone was also capable of storing 30 phone numbers.

By 1989 there were 2.7 million cell phone users, mostly limited to well off business people and professionals due to the high cost. Also by 1989 Motorola released a 1 lb (0.5 kg) flip phone called the MicroTAC that could fit in a large pocket, a precursor to more innovations in the 1990s.

More than just phones - the first smartphones (1990s - 2000s)

While the cell phones of the 1980s were purely created for phone calls, by the 1990s we saw cell phones that could support more features.

In 1992, the Nokia 1011 was the first cell phone to support text messaging thanks to the new 2G network. And in 1994, the IBM Simon paved the way for future smartphone technology and is often considered the first smartphone. The Simon weighed over 1 lb (0.5 kg) and cost $1100 back then meaning $2200 in today’s money. The Simon had a black and white touch screen, and included a calendar, clock, calculator, and address book apps. Most revolutionary, it was able to send faxes and emails, especially amazing since email and the internet was just rising in popularity at the time.

Speaking of the internet, the Nokia 9000 Communicator released in 1996 was the first mobile phone to be able to connect to the world wide web. The phone is also considered the first to include a full keyboard. The phone included apps to edit documents and was meant to resemble a handheld laptop.

Other cell phone features we take for granted that started in the late 1990s:

  • In 1996 the Motorola StarTAC was the first phone with a vibrate feature
  • In 1998 the Siemens S10 was the first cell phone with a color screen
  • In 1999, the first cell phone to enable MP3 playing, the first splash proof cell phone, the first GPS enabled cell phone, and the first camera phones were released.

As technology improved cell phones became more accessible. By 2000 there were 109 million cell phone users worldwide.

Smartphones and Apps (2000s to today)

Many early 2000s cell phones continued innovating off 1990s technologies. The 3G network was unveiled in 2001. 3G allowed for more information to be communicated over cellular network. This was also when cell phones started to become really cheap. In fact, 9 of the top 10 best selling cell phones of all time were cheap basic cell phones manufactured between 2000 to 2010, most of these phones extremely popular in developing countries even today.

Before the iPhone vs. Android smartphone war, it was iPhone vs. BlackBerry. The first BlackBerry was released in 2002. BlackBerry phones were popular due to its full keyboard, small size, and lots of features. The BlackBerry is considered the first popular smartphone and by 2011 annual sales peaked at 50 million. With that said, by 2016 that number dropped to 4 million and over the years the company shifted its focus to cybersecurity. Learn the basics of cybersecurity in Create & Learn’s Junior Hackers course!

In 2003, the original Android company launched to make software for phones. In 2005, Google bought it and made the code behind Android open source, meaning the original code is public but people can still modify the original code to sell. In 2007, Google partnered with well known phone manufacturers worldwide to use Android software and by 2008 the first Android phone was released, the T-Mobile G1. Today, Android phones are about 70% of global smartphones. This is because Android smartphones are cheaper since the Android software is open source and there are many companies that make Android phones, causing competition.

In 2007, Apple launched the iPhone. The iPhone was revolutionary for its simple one big touchscreen design. In 2008, Apple launched the App Store, enabling non-Apple developers to create apps for the phone. Shortly after the Apple App Store, Android came out with the Android Marketplace (now called the Google Play Store). Mobile app development really unleashed a phone’s potential as a pocket computer. The app store also propelled mobile gaming with the first major mobile game Angry Birds being released. For more about this history of video games, check out Create & Learn’s article here! While Android is most popular worldwide, around 60% of smartphones in the US are iPhones.

Since 2010, the major innovations in smartphones are in clearer screens, better cameras, faster processors, and the adoption of faster networks. 4G networks came live in 2010 and 5G networks came live in 2020. Each network generation brings massive improvement. 4G is 20x faster than 3G and 5G is around 10x faster than 4G. The 5G network will eventually reach speeds in the gigabytes per second across millions of users. People on a 5G network can now video call in high definition instantly on a smartphone, a far cry from waiting 30 minutes to place a voice call on a car phone!

Now you know the history of cell phones for kids

You can continue the history of cell phone technology. Have you ever wanted to make your own mobile app? Then sign up for Create & Learn’s Mobile Coding for Apps and Games class or the more advanced Java Primer with Android class! Or if you’re interested in creating the next revolution of cell phone hardware, then sign up for Create & Learn’s Arduino for Kids class for an introduction to circuits!

Up next, learn all about STEM for kids.

Written by Brandon Lim, a Create & Learn instructor and curriculum developer. Brandon also works full-time as a software engineer and holds a BS in Computer Science from Johns Hopkins University. Brandon has experience teaching coding to students of all ages from elementary school to college and is excited to share his deep knowledge and relentless passion for coding with the next generation of technology leaders.