Monday 17th June 1946
A driver in St. Louis, Missouri. pulled out a handset from under his car’s dashboard, placed a phone call and made history. It was the first mobile telephone call.
A team including Alton Dickieson and D. Mitchell from Bell Labs and future AT&T CEO H.I. Romnes, worked more than a decade to achieve this feat. By 1948, wireless telephone service was available in almost 100 cities and highway corridors. Customers included utilities, truck fleet operators and reporters. However, with only 5,000 customers making 30,000 weekly calls, the service was far from commonplace. That “primitive” wireless network could not handle large call volumes. A single transmitter on a central tower provided a handful of channels for an entire metropolitan area. Between one and eight receiver towers handled the call return signals. At most, three subscribers could make calls at one time in any city. It was, in effect, a massive party line, where subscribers would have to listen first for someone else on the line before making a call. Expensive and far from “mobile”, the service cost $15 per month, plus 30 to 40 cents per local call, and the equipment weighed 80 pounds. Just as they would use a CB microphone, users depressed a button on the handset to talk and released it to listen. Improved technology after 1965 brought a few more channels, customer dialing and eliminated the cumbersome handset. But capacity remained so limited that Bell System officials rationed the service to 40,000 subscribers guided by agreements with state regulatory agencies. For example, 2,000 subscribers in New York City shared just 12 channels, and typically waited 30 minutes to place a call. It was wireless, but with “strings” attached.