Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Evolution of the Cell Phone Throughout the 80s and 90s

How badly do you want this set of Russian doll-style cell phones created by Karl Bean? Image via

These days you feel off kilter and uneasy if your phone is out of your reach for five minutes, but years ago cell phone technology was a flashy trend accessible only to the super rich and Zach Morris. 20 years ago, no one could foresee that even the homeless would be yapping away on cellular telephones, not to mention the growing number of elementary school students who tote personal phones in their backpacks. In an age where we feel a constant need to be plugged in, it's difficult to remember a time when we wouldn't think to tell the whole world of our mundane hourly activities in 140 characters or less. I almost can't believe that I survived an entire decade without knowing via Facebook that my ex-neighbor's daughter-in-law was vacuuming her apartment . A scary thought, indeed.

In the days before communication technology played a major role in our everyday activities, the cell phone was nothing short of a modern marvel. The idea that someone could whip a fully functional phone out of their pockets (or for earlier models, giant carrier bags) was astounding. Let's take a brief trip back through time to an age where simple technology could still delight and amaze the consuming masses:

Motorola DynaTAC 8000X (1983)

While we did see car phones before the 80s, we'd never seen anything quite like this. This was portable enough to be carried around, at least by 1983 standards. Unlike car phones, the DynaTAC series could connect without the intervention of an operator. Oh, and did I mention it cost $3995? In 1983 dollars. That's something upward of $8000 when adjusted for today's inflation. Needless to say, these were not within the reach of most consumers.

Nokia Mobira Talkman (1984)

Even under ideal care and conditions, the more portable DynaTAC could only eke out about 60 minutes of talk time. It was flashy and interesting, yes, but practical, no. On the plus side,these unwieldy battery packs on the Talkman models could allow for extended cell phone life. On the minus, you had to carry a giant battery around with you.

Motorola MicroTAC 9800X (1989)

This phone was widely revered for its small and light construction, boasting "pocket size" proportions. It even featured a revolutionary flip mouthpiece, which of course made it look infinitely cooler than the Zach Morris model. On the low end, no-frills versions of the MicroTAC sold for around $2500, still falling short of the release of a reasonably priced cellular telephone.


Yes, I admit, it's not really a cell phone. The pager, however, was a stepping stone into regular consumer ownership of phone-related devices. While cell phones were still pretty pricey for the general public, pagers became a sensible means of getting a hold of someone while they were out. For example, the babysitter could alert the parents of their child's incessant projectile vomiting, and the parents could rush to a nearby payphone to offer cleanup tips. It was a handy way to keep track of people, and far cheaper than a full-fledged phone.

As the affordability of cell phones rose, pagers were once again relegated to use by businesspeople and doctors. It almost makes me shed a tear to think that a generation from now, no one will think Daria's Quinn Morgendorfer's line, "Mom! I'm not my sister's beeper!" is funny. It is, by the way, hilarious.

First Cell Phone TV Commercial (1989)

That 80s music! The lack of voice-over! The cheesy montage quality! This commercial had it all. Well, all by the standards of horribly corny 80s commercials. I do kind of like when that guy tries to call his way out of the sheep traffic jam on the road. Classic.

Radio Shack Cell Phone TV Commercial (1990)

Just take a look at that battery pack! I mean, really. Doesn't this seem like somewhat of a step backward toward Talkman territory? Didn't they already have a few phones without enormous battery packs? Why do I need to carry the equivalent of a lumberjack's hearty lunchbox just to make a call on my boat? I assume cost and battery life had something to do with it, but that thing is an eyesore.

Motorola International 3200 (1992)
The first to utilize GSM (Global Systems for Mobile Communications) technology, this is the first of the cell phone dinosaurs that would actually still work on today's network. It also had an LCD screen, though you certainly couldn't do much with it.

First Person-to-Person Text Message (1993)

This nugget of information is included solely to bask in the memory of a time before text messages and the inevitable carpel tunnel developed thereafter. Back then, the idea of composing the equivalent of an entire letter via cell phone was unfathomable. Despite the available technology, it would still be several years before texting took off in a big way.

IBM Simon (1994)

IBM and BellSouth teamed up to produce the first market-viable SmartPhone, released in 1994 as the IBM Simon. The Simon had, alongside its regular cell phone capability, the power to send and receive faxes, a pager function, and the features of a PDA. It even came with games and had a touch screen. How progressive is that? At $899 it still wasn't a bargain, but it was slighty more within the range of access for ordinary consumers.

Motorola StarTAC (1996)

Our first flip phone, or as they are more adorably known, the clamshell model. It was extremely compact for the time, and the design looks pretty close to that of a basic flip phone today*. Magazine ads even featured a punch-out picture version of it to illustrate its real size, which was pretty well-received as far as marketing strategies go. On the other hand, this baby still cost you a grand, so you might have just stuck with faking it with your magazine cutout version.

Nokia 5110(1998)

One of the most popular models of the time, this phone was everywhere. Even Scully from the X-Files used it, and I certainly trust her taste in communication technology. This was the first phone I owned, rewarded to me upon receipt of my driver's license, and I certainly treasured it. I lavished it in gifts like jeweled buttons and electric pink faceplates, and let me tell you, I know my 5110 appreciated it.

The 5110 was also the first phone to have the game Snake, which entertained me through a serious bulk of my high school classes and study halls. Seriously, I rocked at Snake. This was also the first phone to feature interchangeable faceplates, meaning you could alter the design and make it look, in many cases, ridiculous.

Nokia 8810 (1998)

Our good friends at Nokia had a novel idea: why not fold up the external antenna and stick it inside the phone? The resultant 8810 with internal antenna was extremely popular, and looked pretty futuristic for its time. Just take my word for it.

Nokia 7110(1999)

Alright, finally we're getting somewhere connectivity-wise! The 7110 was the first to include WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) technology, meaning it had pretty limited access to some online material and capabilities. Plus, they modeled the sliding bottom after the phone in the Matrix. All you needed were a pair of sunglasses and a simulated reality environment and you could be just like Neo.

Nokia 3210 (1999)

Internal antenna? Compose your own ringtones? Switchable faceplates? And the first with T9? Where do I sign up?

My brain is now specially wired (or perhaps in this case, wirelessly capable) to know all of the distinct nuances of T9 without even looking at my phone. Predictive text was a new and exciting concept that meant you didn't have to press every damn button 4 times to get the letter you want, one at time. Well done, Nokia.

All of these phones are a far cry from today's ultra sleek, ultra capable phones, but at the time they were greeted with great enthusiasm. We never knew quite what they'd come up with next. Nowadays, it's hard to imagine how much further technology will go. I can't fathom what more they can do with it, but I'm sure they'll think of something. Catch up with me in 20 years when I'm chatting on my sandwich phone and we'll talk.

*Not that anyone except me still has an archaic phone like that, but still


Sarah said...

I had the 5110 with a hot pink faceplate AND purple jeweled keys.

Midna said...

The 3210 was the phone I got for my 17th birthday. I spent hours composing ringtones. Tragic, I know.

Ye olde Nokias were pretty much indestructible. I had an 8210 that ended up in the washing machine, yet still worked. Unlike my current phone, which is being repaired. I may not get it back til after Christmas. Oh the humanity.

Amber said...

Mark my words, those gigantic cell phones are going to be fashionable again. Lil Wayne or Lady Gaga will use one in a video and the world will follow suit.

Anonymous said...

This is hilarious!

Yankee Girl said...

Wow! The whole time I was reading this I was thinking about Zach Morris.

J said...

I love the Zach Morris phone, it's so classic. I remember having the Nokia 5110 (as it was passed down from my brother) and thought I was so cool to own the "it" phone. Cell phones have come a long way since the 80s and 90s!

Sadako said...

Hamburger phone!

Remember the Fresh Prince of Bel Air ep where Will has a new look and a beeper and Uncle Phil thinks only drug dealers have beepers? Also I remember reading, I think it was an Anastasia Krupnik book, where she talks about becoming a doctor and being embarrassed by beepers.

Cee said...

Looking back pagers seem so dad still carries one. And he has a blackberry. It makes no sense.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes I had the 5110 with the switchable face plates. AND i loved the game snake.. I had completely forgotten about that until you mentioned it. :)

Gwen said...

My first cellphone was as big as a brick!!! My parents actually gave it to me when I started working downtown in a not so good area. I think it had something like 30 minutes a month on it. It sat in my glove box and I think I only used it 3 times. All three I was stuck in traffic and was calling work to let them know.

I had both the 5110 and 3210 after the original phone. I loved buying different plates and keys.

And yes...I totally want the nesting phone set. :) XOXO

Freck said...

Oh I love this!!! Such a good post. Who can forget the Zac Morris phone?! My dad totally had a bag phone, I thought it was the bees knees.

Ashley @ KiwisandCocktails said...

What a walk down memory lane! I liked this post!
I got the Nokia 5110 when I got my License too (whoa, that was almost 11 years ago!)...however, I could not get service on it 85% of the time! Before that, I HAD a pager. NOw that I think of it, that was just weird.

Mr. Condescending said...

Wow you do such great research!

I had a starTAC and also had the nokia with snake on it. Did your nokia have the laser function where you could play someone else in snake as long as you pointed them at each other!?

Shop N' Chomp said...

Omg, classic...haha! :D

Melanie's Randomness said...

It's amazing if you really think about. I agree Zack Morris's phone still ruled!

Melissa Blake said...

Ahhhh, it's the Zack Morris phone! LOVE it! That phone was almost its own character on the show.

Linda said...

The 5110 was my first phone too! I had a red faceplate. I was so excited when I got it.
I think my brother still uses the 3210.

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Richard @ The Bewildered Brit said...

I remember my dad had one of those gargantuan brick phones in the 1980s! And a car phone.

I remember the car phone seemed to cut out every time you went over a bump or pothole.

cuileann said...

Why are old phones so funny? They are, though. Thanks. Teehee.

ark said...

I DO want that nesting dolls phone thing! SO awesome!

Carol said...

The Zach Morris phone - yesss!!!

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Anonymous said...

i miss the kermit introduction between pager/beeper and mobile.

Anonymous said...

Lol those phones were massive!
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I would really enjoy a smart phone in the style of Zach Morris's cell phone.

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