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Martin Cooper invented the first portable cellular telephone in 1973. During his 29 years at Motorola, Cooper built and managed its paging and cellular businesses and served as Corporate Director[…]

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question:rn When did you discover your passion for science? 

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

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

Question: How can we improve science rneducation? 

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

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

The rnteaching of science, mathematics, of anything—there really is no rndifference from a game. If you make a game dull, if you make it rnuninteresting, if you don’t have something that grabs people... then they rnwon’t get interested and they’ll go do something else. So, I don’t see rnwhy teaching should be any different than creating games. Creating a rncurriculum ought to be the same as creating a game. Make it interesting,rn make it fun, make it a challenge; all of those things. All of the rnattributes of playing a game are the things that draw people into rnlearning and I think that’s what we ought to do. We ought to somehow rncoalesce the concept of teaching with the concept of game playing, and rnwe’re going to find that a lot more of our youngsters are going to get rninterested in learning and specifically about science, mathematics, rntechnology.
Recorded on April 21, 2010Photo credit: Rico Shen