How a Pop-Bottle Invention Resulted in the Cell Phone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question:\r\n When did you discover your passion for science? 

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

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

Question: How can we improve science \r\neducation? 

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

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

The \r\nteaching of science, mathematics, of anything—there really is no \r\ndifference from a game. If you make a game dull, if you make it \r\nuninteresting, if you don’t have something that grabs people... then they \r\nwon’t get interested and they’ll go do something else. So, I don’t see \r\nwhy teaching should be any different than creating games. Creating a \r\ncurriculum ought to be the same as creating a game. Make it interesting,\r\n make it fun, make it a challenge; all of those things. All of the \r\nattributes of playing a game are the things that draw people into \r\nlearning and I think that’s what we ought to do. We ought to somehow \r\ncoalesce the concept of teaching with the concept of game playing, and \r\nwe’re going to find that a lot more of our youngsters are going to get \r\ninterested in learning and specifically about science, mathematics, \r\ntechnology.

Recorded on April 21, 2010

Photo credit: Rico Shen

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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