How a Pop-Bottle Invention Resulted in the Cell Phone

The developer of the first portable cellular telephone discovered that he wanted to be an engineer when he was just four years old. His homemade magnifying glass sparked a career that would revolutionize communications.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: How did you first come up with the idea of creating a portable phone? 

Martin Cooper: For 100 years, people who wanted to talk to other people were wired to their homes, they were latched – or chained to their desks and really didn’t have much in the way of freedom. That we were, in fact, giving people communications in their vehicles: even then, it’s not much better than being tied to your desk. You’re still trapped in your car. So we found out from people, like the Superintendent of Police in Chicago, who told us that he had a real problem. His officers had to be in communication, the only way they could talk was to be in their cars, and yet the people they were protecting were walking on the streets. He asked us, “How can I have my officers connected and still mingling with the people?” And we discovered this was true of people managing airports, people managing businesses, real estate people. So, we became aware of the fact that real communications is portable communications. Put the device on the person. 

Question: When did you first know that you had to be an inventor? 

Martin Cooper: I was four years old, lived in Winnipeg, Canada, where it’s very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. And I look at these boys with a magnifying glass. And they were burning a piece of paper by focusing the rays of the sun onto this paper through a magnifying glass. And I just had to know how that worked. And so I did the obvious thing, I took a soda pop bottle and broke it and tried to make a magnifying glass out of it. And that’s when I realize now, that I had discovered that I was going to be an engineer because I want to know how everything works and I always have. 

Question: What was the first thing you dreamt of inventing? 

Martin Cooper: When I was nine years old, I invented—at least I think I invented—a train that could travel through a tunnel from one end of the country to the other. And what was unique about this train was two things. I had learned about friction, and so we had to get rid of friction. And so I thought, why don’t we support this train on a magnetic field? Because I knew two magnets, when they are close together, force themselves apart. And the second thing is if we’re going to get rid of all friction, we have to get rid of the air. So, this train traveled in a tunnel that was totally evacuated. It was in a vacuum. And amazingly enough, they are just starting to build trains like that, maybe without the vacuum, but with magnetic levitation. So, maybe it wasn’t such a dumb idea after all. 

Question: When did you discover your passion for science? 

Martin Cooper: Science has been a part of my life from the time I was four years old... just knowing how things work, having a curiosity. And my curiosity has been limitless and that’s quite a handicap because there are times in your life when you have to specialize. But I literally want to know everything and only in recent years have I finally realized that I’m never going to know everything. In fact, the older I get, and the more stupid I find out that I am. But science, the understanding of how things work, what things are, has been crucially important to me. 

So, I started out with fantasy; I’ve always loved science fiction. I’ve always known that I was going to be an engineer, so I went to a technical high school so that I could take every kind of shop and learn how to work with my hands, learned about materials, and I always knew that I was going to go to an engineering school and get an engineering degree. 

Question: How can we improve science education? 

Martin Cooper: Science can be interesting. Science can be fun. If, in fact, teachers learn how to present science in that way and learn how to make people curious and make it enjoyable, I think more people will get involved. 

But it’s not important that everybody become a scientist. Everybody doesn’t have to be a mathematician. Make it interesting enough so the people that have that interest, that have that talent do latch onto the wonderful world that will open up if they dig into science and mathematics. 

The teaching of science, mathematics, of anything—there really is no difference from a game. If you make a game dull, if you make it uninteresting, if you don’t have something that grabs people... then they won’t get interested and they’ll go do something else. So, I don’t see why teaching should be any different than creating games. Creating a curriculum ought to be the same as creating a game. Make it interesting, make it fun, make it a challenge; all of those things. All of the attributes of playing a game are the things that draw people into learning and I think that’s what we ought to do. We ought to somehow coalesce the concept of teaching with the concept of game playing, and we’re going to find that a lot more of our youngsters are going to get interested in learning and specifically about science, mathematics, technology.

Recorded on April 21, 2010

Photo credit: Rico Shen