The Cell Phone’s True Magic

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Thus pronounced Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the prophetic author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and many other science fiction classics, in his “Third Law” of 1973. The connection between technology and magic can be traced back even farther than the 19th century, when electrical inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were popularly known as wizards—a label that neither apparently tried to shed. In the era of Edison and Tesla, magic was part of the mystique of invention, and, frankly, an effective marketing strategy. Both electrical inventors were self-promoters fixated on reputation and market share.

The cover of The Daily Graphic of New York, 9 July 1879, pronounced Edison a “wizard.” SI negative #80-18655

The cover of The Daily Graphic of New York, 9 July 1879, pronounced Edison a “wizard.” SI negative #80-18655

Sir Arthur’s statement prompted me to reflect on if, and how much, times have changed. It seems to me that we are thoroughly accustomed and adapted to today’s electrical devices that have transformed our public and personal lives. They no longer astonish. Yet these gadgets are more powerful, mysterious, and “magical,” than ever. Their inner workings are infinitely miniaturized and shrouded in impenetrable disposable boxes. We are increasingly reliant on latter-day magicians, a priesthood of technicians, to mediate between them and us.

Of all the devices that surround us, the cell phone may qualify as the most magical. Yet, unlike other disruptive technologies—the telegraph, telephone, and light bulb—few people are familiar with the name of its inventor, Martin “Marty” Cooper. I had the privilege of interviewing him in a public forum last month. (Watch the interview on C-SPAN3).

The author (left) interviews cell phone inventor Martin Cooper. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

The author (left) interviews cell phone inventor Martin Cooper. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

While working at Motorola, Cooper introduced the public to the first true cell phone in 1973 (the year that Clarke handed down his Third Law), and brought forth what is surely the most ubiquitous technology on the planet. It is estimated that the number of cell phones in use in 2014 will actually exceed the world population of seven billion. A game-changing technology by any measure, it has become the continually-evolving platform for a dizzying array of novel devices whose social impacts are incalculable. We humans are the ultimate social animals and, for good or ill, the cell phone is the perfect tool for addressing our social needs—and neediness.

Yet Marty Cooper refuses to mystify himself or his amazing accomplishment. One of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met, the trim white-haired Cooper is above all a teacher, devoted to building bridges between the public and technology.

During our interview last month, I asked Cooper about his “Eureka moment” in the discovery of the cell phone. He immediately rejoined that there never was such a moment—and added that I should not have expected one. Like almost all major inventions, he said, the cell phone was the culmination of many small, often anonymous improvements made over a long period. He gave ample credit to his coworkers at Motorola as well as to other engineers, and stressed that he never came forth with the mythical “Aha!” It was not magic, but plain hard work. The greatest challenge was reducing the size of the phone, called the Dyna-TAC, from the size of a brick (hence, the nickname) weighing 2.5 pounds. Even after the major breakthrough of the invention of the integrated circuit, shrinking the handset was a long, hard slog.

Two early Motorola "brick" phones and an early flip phone. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

Two early Motorola “brick” phones and an early flip phone. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

Well, what about your April 3, 1973, public demonstration of the first cell phone in New York City, I asked? Was it anything like Samuel Morse’s first telegraph message, “What hath God wrought?” a line borrowed from the Bible. No, his was hardly a mystical moment, Cooper remembered. He made the call not to a colleague, but to Joel Engel, his rival at AT&T, who was then working on a cellular car phone. Known for his puckish sense of humor, Marty said: “Joel, I’m calling you from a cellular phone, a real cellular phone, a handheld, portable, real cellular phone,” making sure that Engel got the point.

Another major thing Cooper wanted us to know is that a cell phone is not a phone at all. Unlike illusionists who try to distract our gaze when they perform their tricks, he pointed out exactly where we should look. He explained that the cell phone is a special kind of radio, tracing its lineage not to Bell but to radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi (that’s why the sound you hear when you first turn on your handset isn’t the once-familiar dial tone but the hiss of radio static.) As a communications engineer, this is a lineage that he is clearly proud of.

As for his greatest accomplishment, Cooper is quoted as saying the “personal telephone [is] something that would represent an individual, so you could assign a number not to a place, not to a desk, not to a home, but to a person.” The capability of calling an individual rather than a place, he insists, was the real value of his technical breakthrough. AT&T was focused on the car phone—place, not person. Told repeatedly that the personal cell phone was impossible, Cooper prides himself on his perseverance and faith in himself. No surprise then that he puts great stock in the cell phone as an agent of human individuality in our mass culture. That is its essence and true magic.

Cooper holds up his invention. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

Cooper holds up his invention. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

In May, the Lemelson Center will join with Smithsonian Magazine and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination to explore themes of invention both magical and factual. The 2014 “The Future Is Here” festival will focus on “Science Meets Science Fiction: Imagination, Inspiration, and Invention.” We are inviting the public to explore with us the tantalizing realm where the real, the imagined, and the illusory meet, if not in the “Twilight Zone,” at least in the same neighborhood. “Science Meets Science Fiction” will open new vistas on society’s future by highlighting the visionaries in science, invention, and science fiction who epitomize human imagination and creativity. We invite you to join us. But we’ll ask you to silence your cell phones.

Future Is Here Marquee

Inventing the Surveillance Society

We are being watched. Anytime we enter a building, place a phone call, swipe a credit card, or visit a website, our actions are observed, recorded, and analyzed by commercial and government entities. Surveillance technologies are omnipresent—a fact underscored by the Boston Marathon bombing dragnet and Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency earlier this year. It’s clear that we live in a “surveillance society” driven by a range of innovations, from closed-circuit TV cameras to sophisticated data mining algorithms. But how did our surveillance society emerge, and what is the effect of ubiquitous surveillance on our everyday lives?

surveillance-header

To tackle these questions, the Lemelson Center is presenting Inventing the Surveillance Society, a symposium that explores the role of invention and technology in a modern world where our actions (and transactions) are constantly being monitored. The symposium will bring together scholars, inventors, policymakers, members of the media, and the public to discuss the historical evolution of surveillance technologies, and their contemporary societal implications. The symposium will be held on Friday, October 25 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.  All events are free and open to the public and will be available via live webcast.

As I’ve told friends and colleagues about our upcoming symposium, I’ve encountered some mild surprise that a history museum would be convening this kind of conversation. Let me provide a few reasons why the Lemelson Center and the National Museum of American History are the right place for this discussion and describe how our approach will be different than what you typically see on the 24-hour news cycle.

The President said we should do it. As a Smithsonian (i.e. federal) employee, I listened closely when my boss, President Obama, made remarks on the heels of Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs. In his June 7 news conference, the President suggested that the American public will need to “discuss and debate” the “balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy.” With our symposium, we are providing a free, public forum for exactly this kind of discussion here at the Smithsonian.

Widespread public access. Think tanks and university department host these kinds of programs all the time, but they tend to operate at a somewhat rarified level; unless you’re a scholar or policymaker, it can be tough to get on the invitation list. Here at the museum, admission is free and we welcome all comers. And if you’re not in D.C., then you can tune in via a live webcast. By hosting a very public event, we believe we’re fulfilling our Smithsonian mission—“the increase and diffusion of knowledge”—in a way that will be accessible to the broadest number of people. We hope you’ll participate in the discussion.

Current events in historical perspective. Over the last several months, questions about surveillance have been debated daily in newspapers and on current affairs news programs. They rightly focus on breaking news—that’s their job. However, the emergence of the surveillance society did not occur overnight. As a museum, we can present the long view on surveillance and hopefully uncover some insights that will illuminate our current era.

Trade catalog for "The Detectifone", 1917

As demonstrated by our museum collections, surveillance technology has a long history. Trade catalog, Carl Anderson Electric Corporation, 1917, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Surveillance is not new. Since ancient times, kings and pharaohs have dispatched spies to gather intelligence on things happening both inside and outside the kingdom. And over the last 150 years or so, those direct, human observations have been augmented by a range of new inventions that have improved the watchers’ ability to capture, store, and analyze their observations. Yet, a symposium dedicated only to the history of surveillance wouldn’t be very relevant, so we plan to explore both the historical emergence of the surveillance society and its contemporary implications. Today’s news is tomorrow’s history, so it’s crucial that the museum convene conversations like this to explore and document current topics like surveillance that will be historically significant in 50, 100, or even 200 years.

Focus on invention and technology.  In the news, the conversation about surveillance tends to be framed in terms of legal and ethical issues: how do we balance national security and personal liberty?  However, few pundits stop to consider the technological basis of the surveillance society. As with past symposia that have explored topics likes spaceflight, food, and sustainable architecture, the Lemelson Center’s 2013 program will specifically examine the surveillance society through the lens of invention and technology.

CCTV Trade Catalog, 1989,

Trade catalog, Crest Electronics, Inc., 1989, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

At its heart, modern surveillance is fundamentally driven by technology. For example, the invention of the daguerreotype and the phonograph in the 19th century created new kinds of recorded evidence that were more trustworthy than faulty memories or hearsay.  Similarly, 20th century office technologies like the dossier, the carbon form in triplicate, and the filing cabinet were mundane (but crucial) innovations that enabled government and commercial bureaucracies to gather, store, and retrieve information about us. Today, autonomous cameras record your entrance into a building—or through a red-light intersection. Massive data warehouses store terabytes of information about our credit card transactions and website clickstreams, so that sophisticated data mining algorithms at Amazon and Netflix can suggest the kinds of books and movies it believes we would enjoy. Clearly, the advance of technology has expanded the scope and strategic value of surveillance. Accordingly, the symposium’s emphasis on invention should provide new insights that go beyond the familiar privacy-security debate.

So that’s the advance scoop on Inventing the Surveillance Society, our annual Lemelson Center symposium, coming to the National Museum of American History on Friday, October 25. Check out the program here—we hope you’ll attend or check out the live webcast! In the coming weeks, I’ll say more about our featured speakers and what they’ll be discussing—stay tuned!