Bell Telephone Launched a Mobile Phone During the 1940s: Watch Bell’s Film Showing How It Worked

“Here comes a trailer truck out on the open highway, miles from the nearest town,” says the narrator in the short film above. Suddenly it becomes “important for someone to get in touch with the drivers of this outfit. How can that be done?” Any modern viewer would answer this question the same way: you just call the guys.But Cell phones dates from the 19-40s, well before the eponymous devices came into widespread use – some four decades, in fact, before even the massive Motorola DynaTAC 8000X hit the market. The idea of ​​calling someone not at home or in the office, let alone a trucker on the road, would have seemed like something out of science fiction.

Yet the engineers at Bell had made it possible by using a system that transmits conversations “partly by radio, half by telephone lines.” This required “a number of transmitting and receiving stations connected to telephone lines,” installed “at intervals along the highway so that one will always be within range of the moving vehicle.”

As dramatized in Cell phones, the process of actually calling the driver of a vehicle involves calling a classic firing switchboard operator and asking her to connect. But otherwise, the process will not feel completely unfamiliar to mobile phone users today – that is, to the majority of people in the world.

Cell phones have become such an integral part of life in the twenty-first century that few of us really feel the need to understand how they work. But three-quarters of a century ago, the idea of ​​taking or making calls on the fly was unfamiliar enough that viewers of a movie like this would have wanted the mechanics laid out in some detail. This was certainly especially true for the industrial customers of Bell’s early mobile telephone system, for whom its reliable functionality would translate into greater profits. In the longer term, this technological development, the narrator reminds us over swelling music, marks “one more step toward phone service for anyone, anytime, anywhere”: a once-futuristic vision that now sounds practically mundane.

Related Content:

‘When We’ll All Have Pocket Phones’: A 1920s Cartoon Accurately Predicts Our Cell Phone-Dominated Lives

The world’s first mobile phone shown in vintage film from 1922

A 1947 French film accurately predicted our 21st century addiction to smartphones

In 1953, a telephone company executive predicts the advent of modern smartphones and video calling

The First Cell Phone: Meet Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X, a 2-pound brick priced at $3,995 (1984)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcaststs on cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in the cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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