A Complete History of Cell Phones

A Complete History of Cell Phones

Of modern society's inventions, cell phones have eclipsed all other comparable technology, reaching saturation in just seven years compared to landline telephones, which took 45 years to hit the same benchmark. Mobile technology got its start in the 1980s — even longer ago if you also consider car phones and radio systems. Since then, cell phones have become so popular and such a regular part of our daily lives that it's hard to imagine life without the convenience of what is essentially a powerful handheld computer.

The evolution of cell phones shows where we started — a behemoth device dubbed "The Brick" — and how we ended up with today's sleek iPhone Plus Ultras and Samsung Galaxy smartphones. Check out this cell phone timeline and learn more about our favorite device's not-so-humble origins.


1983 and the Dawn of the Mobile Era

In 1982, not a single average consumer in the world's population of 4.6 billion people had a mobile phone. Today, more than 6 billion people own one.

Mobile phone technology started with the car phone, an approximately 80-pound on-the-go device marketed toward companies and rich elites. When AT&T's Bell Labs started designing a hexagonal mobile phone network via scattered base stations and radio frequencies, they focused most of their research on the car phone, setting the groundwork for Motorola's Martin Cooper to debut an iteration of the world's first actual cell phone in 1973.

The 2.4-pound DynaTAC could sustain 30-minute phone calls, took 10 hours to charge and cost nearly $4,000 when it was released to a commercial market a decade later — that's about $10,000 in today's economy. Despite its high cost and bulky size, the company believed they were only at the beginning of cell phone history and that, someday, we would have smaller devices to hang on our ears or embed in our skin.

One of the earliest renditions of the mobile phone was the Siemens Mobiltelefon C1 in 1985, which was available as a small suitcase for "easy" portability.

Nokia launched the Mobira Cityman 900, the company's first mobile device, in 1987. Today, Nokia is synonymous with early cell phones, but it wouldn't find its fame until later in the '90s.

By 1989, Motorola released the MicroTAC 9800X, which many consider the first truly portable phone. It was 9 inches long when opened and weighed 0.75 pounds.

Old Cell Phones of the 1990s

By the early '90s, cell phone technology moved away from big phones to more handheld, pocket-sized devices like 1992's Nokia 1011, the first mass-produced 2G phone. The Motorola International 3200 sent the first-ever text message just a year later.

In 1993, manufacturers started experimenting with adding new features, like the IBA Simon, which combined a PDA and mobile phone into a single device. Many consider this the world's first smartphone since it had an early iteration of applications and a digital screen.

The flip phone — named for its clam-shell-style — Motorola StarTAC in 1996 was the first of its kind and brought vibration and a display screen to the market.

The Late 1990s and a New Millennium

The flip phone — named for its clam-shell-style — Motorola StarTAC in 1996 was the first of its kind and brought vibration and a display screen to the market. Soon after, the Nokia Communicator 9000 introduced the first QWERTY keyboard and ran on an Intel CPU.

The 1997 cell phone Hagenuk Global Handy was the first mobile device without an external antenna, making it lighter and far easier to transport. It was also a start to a stronger focus on how the phone looked as well as its performance.

1998 saw the debut of the color screen — first seen on the Siemens S10 — custom downloadable ringtones and the 3G network, though it would be years before phones were equipped to handle 3G in the same way they did 2G.

The Motorola Timeport in 1999 was the first phone that worked globally, while Nokia's 7110 model was the first with a browser for internet access. More features were added to phones this year, including MP3 capabilities with Samsung's SPH0M100 Uproar and Nokia's 5210 splash-proof protective cases. The Benefon Esc!, sold almost entirely in Europe, was the first to feature a GPS. Finally, 1999 also saw the Nokia 3210 with an internal antenna and predictive T9 text messaging.

Cell phones became lighter and more compact into the new millennium, launching the now-iconic Nokia 3310.

Phone Trends of the Early 2000s

The 2001 cell phones started with a bang thanks to the Nokia 8310, which included radio capabilities and a calendar. The Ericsson T39 then introduced Bluetooth.

Of the 2002 cell phones, the Sanyo SCP-5300 was among the most impressive because it let users view photos on their phones when before, they had to connect their devices to a computer. It also had dual color displays and flash built into the camera. Nokia's 7610 device came soon after, complete with global roaming and a 1-megapixel camera. Nokia phones of the early 2000s included GPS, internet connectivity and LCD screens.

The Casio G'zOne in 2005 paved the way for water-safe phones, passing submersion tests up to 1 meter deep. The Nokia 6680, the first official device to house 3G connectivity, was considered a premium phone in its time.

Cell Phones of the
Late 2000s and Early 2010s

When Apple debuted the iPhone 2G in 2007, no one could have predicted its effect on the cell phone market — or the world.

Cell Phones of the Late 2000s and Early 2010s

Though the world didn't know it at the time, the mid-2000s would mark the beginning of smartphone history and the cell phone wave we're still riding today. In 2006, smartphones made up only 6% of the United State's cell phone sales. By 2007, that number would nearly double.

When Apple debuted the iPhone 2G in 2007, no one could have predicted its effect on the cell phone market — or the world. The phone's touch-based interface was groundbreaking, creating space for similar phones, like the designer LG Prada KE850. This was also the year Motorola launched the Razr2, a hinged steel device that sold for its chic design and stylish appeal.

A year later, the HTC Dream debuted as the first cell phone with an Android operating system, though it lacked many of its competitors' features and enhancements. Phone enthusiasts today know that, regardless of its reception at the time, it was almost as groundbreaking a moment in phone history as 2007's iPhone release.

The iPhone 2G came next, with 2008 seeing the launch of the App Store and breathing life into what is now a thriving, application-based network. We also got the then-popular LG Scoop, a sliding candy bar design with USB storage, wireless web browsing and other features.

Early environmentalists rejoiced when Motorola released the Renew, the world's first carbon-neutral mobile phone made from recycled plastics. This was also the year Long Term Evolution — now known as LTE — hit commercial markets, and Samsung released the GT-I7500, the first iteration of today's Galaxy devices.

Samsung built on the Galaxy design with the S, released without navigation buttons, followed by the 4G-enabled Samsung SCH-R900. Samsung hit a stride after that, releasing the Samsung Note 8 and the Galaxy II around the same time Apple released the iPhone 4S — this time with Siri, the world's first portable digital assistant — thus starting the battle of Samsung versus iPhone that still wages on today.

Cell Phones in the Mid-2010s

By the early to mid-2010s, cell phones started to play a role in more than communication and productivity, breaking into the healthcare scene in big ways. Intelligent mobile devices now let healthcare providers access patient information faster and on the go. A 2014 study found that nearly 90% of doctors relied on a smartphone or tablet at work, using them for everything from administrative tasks and electronic health records to referencing and medical education.

This paved the way for the rise of mHealth, the name given to wearable or portable patient health tracking devices, like fitness watches and wellness applications. When Samsung released the Galaxy S5 in 2014, they were the first to include a heart rate monitor, further building on the idea of mHealth and giving smartphone users more control over their personal wellbeing.

Samsung's 2012 Galaxy S3 introduced their version of a digital assistant and eye-tracking features, while the Nokia Lumia tried to hold on to the brand's waning legacy with a Windows Phone OS and optical image stabilization. These were joined by Apple's 2013 iPhone 5S, the first with a fingerprint sensor, setting us up for today's ultra-secure biometric phone entry.

The Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge in 2015 had a new curved display, while Google worked behind the scenes to release its first Google Pixel device, praised for its competitive cameras and cloud storage options. Since then, the Pixel has earned a comfortable place among the ranks of top-selling smartphones.

By the middle-to-late-2010s, cell phones were no longer a luxury item but one of necessity in most cultures. In 2014, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts summarized our dependent relationship with phones well, when he said they are such a part of our daily life that a visitor from Mars might think they were a part of human anatomy.

Phones in the Late 2010s

Despite economic uncertainty in 2020, the market saw memorable releases, like the iPhone 12 lineup and the Sony Xperia Pro, designed for professional-level videography.

Phones in the Late 2010s

The late 2010s saw 5G's slow rollout on phones like the Samsung Galaxy S10, as well as the first triple-camera smartphone — the Huawei P20 Pro — in 2018. Google released its second Pixel variation, the Pixel 2, and Apple started playing with wireless charging with the iPhone 8 and the later iPhone X, which had face unlock. This was also the era where manufacturers started trading headphone jacks for wireless listening connectivity.

Despite economic uncertainty in 2020, the market saw memorable releases, like the iPhone 12 lineup and the Sony Xperia Pro, designed for professional-level videography.

There was also a clear movement toward mobile gaming, evidenced by the market's $77.2 billion revenue in 2020 alone. Experts predict mobile gaming will account for more than half of the booming video game industry in 2021.

One 2019 report surveyed phone users across 11 countries and found that, although participants acknowledged the negative effects of smartphones, the majority believed the positive outweighs the negative, citing that it was easier than before to stay in touch with loved ones, stay informed about world events and be more productive.

2021 and the Future of Cell Phones

Today, 97% of Americans own a cell phone, such as 2021's iPhone 12 Pro Max, the Samsung Galaxy S21 and the iPhone SE 5G. There has been a subtle market shift toward more mid-range devices, striking a balance between premium features and designs with a smaller price tag.

Businesses and employees have started relying on workplace apps and mobile devices for remote productivity and accessibility, including the now-infinite app economy. Unlike old phones, which were talk-only devices, we can now use apps for everything from banking and house shopping to ordering food and buying essential items for next-day delivery.

Our phones can give us more insight into our own health, letting us track physical activity and enroll in a mobile fitness class to get more out of our at-home workouts. Students can get homework help and study on the morning commute with e-reader apps and digital textbooks, while cloud storage makes files accessible anywhere, anytime.

Some places have started using mobile technology to supplement and enhance community transportation, incorporating cell phones and mobile networks into infrastructure planning.

Mobile technology will continue adapting to society's changing needs and integrate even further into things like healthcare, public infrastructure and workplace productivity. Most notably, cell phones will continue being a source of endless connectivity and entertainment with social media, internet browsing, video streaming, mobile gaming and the ability to reach loved ones across the world in seconds.

Safely Recycle Unwanted Cell Phones at an ecoATM Kiosk

Learn more about how you can help ecoATM reduce harmful e-waste and price your device to get started today!

Safely Sell Unwanted Cell Phones at an ecoATM Kiosk

As you've seen, the cell phone market is always growing and evolving with each new release. If the past few decades are any indication, smartphones will transform and integrate into our lives even more than they already have, adding impressive and unheard-of features at a pace almost too fast to keep up with.

If you get excited at the prospect of a new smartphone release — or you're like us and find the growing mobile technology market a fascinating study of society — ecoATM can help you stay on top of the latest trends while helping to minimize  electronic waste. Find an ecoATM kiosk near you to sell or recycle your used phone before each new upgrade.

Sell your phone to ecoATM and receive instant cash! ecoATM may be able to give your phone a second life on the used phone market. Learn more about how you help ecoATM reduce harmful e-waste and price your device to get started today! 

ecoATM is not affiliated with nor has it been authorized, sponsored or otherwise approved by the brands listed in this post. Trademarks and brands are property of their respective owners. 

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