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Eighties Mobile Phones

Posted by Big Boo on December 16th, 2008

These days every man, woman, child, dog and cat seems to own a mobile phone (or cell phone to our US chums), and many own more than one for some reason.  I’ve certainly seen many commuters on trains with their own personal phone, a work blackberry and just for good measure an iPod layed out in front of them whilst tapping away on their laptop, meaning they are probably in the habit of carrying around the better part of a thousand pounds worth of kit with them at all times!

What has this to do with the 1980’s though, I hear you cry.  Well, iPods may still have been twenty years away but the mobile phone was just beginning to appear, although as the image accompanying this post shows, perhaps calling them “mobile” was a bit ambitious.

Early mobile phones were actually pretty large in size.  Initially the power requirements of the devices were such that they had to be fitted in cars where there was room for the massive battery required to power it.  I wonder if this is why one of the larger chains of mobile phone shops in the UK is called The Carphone Warehouse?

Another reason for the phone being fitted inside a car was that the transmission of the telephone call was actually done via radio waves, so a second aerial (in addition to the normal one for the car radio) was fitted to cars to allow the phone to actually be used to make a call!

By 1985 a new technology had been developed to enable phone calls to be made, known as cellular technology, hence the name cell phone.  The geographic area was split into cells which could be thought of as hexagons like in a beehive.  When you wanted to make a call your mobile phone would first connect to the cell for your local area.  The call was then routed either via landlines or via adjacent cells to the phone of whoever you were trying to contact.

In the UK there were initially two mobile phone companies, Cellnet (made up of British Telecom and Securicor) and Vodafone.  Neither company sold the telephones themselves to the general public, instead having to use a network of independant sellers.  Back then just the phone could set you back around £3000, without contract or any “free minutes” like we get today, so it was only high flying company executives who could afford the luxury of carrying around a lump of plastic around the same size and weight as a house brick.  Indeed, the phones of this era were usually dubbed “bricks” for this very reason.

By the time the 1990’s arrived things were beginning to get much closer to what we know of as mobile phones today.  Whilst still pricey the cost was beginning to become such that the general public was beginning to be able to afford a mobile phone, and the size of the handsets themselves was rapidly getting smaller and more portable.

Fancy a brick phone still today?  Well, you might not be able to make a call on it but there is a fun little gadget, suitably called The Brick, which looks just like the rightmost phone in the image above.  You can pop your mobile phone inside it and when you get an incoming call it will start shouting things like “Are you going to answer that?” at you.