From “the brick” to the Blackberry: A look back at three decades of the mobile phone

Michael Mould of Unimobiles with the Nokia 8110 mobile phone 'banana phone' which started off his business when he bought ten phones and sold nine at university. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY Michael Mould of Unimobiles with the Nokia 8110 mobile phone 'banana phone' which started off his business when he bought ten phones and sold nine at university. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Wednesday, January 7, 2015
3:11 PM

Since its first use in the UK 30 years ago, the mobile phone has completely changed our lives. STACIA BRIGGS looks back on three decades of mobile phone use.

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Some of Michael Mould's older mobiles, dating from around 1999. From left, Ericsson T10, early flip phone; Ericsson 628, coloured phone; Nokia 3210; Motorola M3788; Nokia 7110; Nokia 8110 'banana phone; Philips Savvy; and the Ericsson T28. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYSome of Michael Mould's older mobiles, dating from around 1999. From left, Ericsson T10, early flip phone; Ericsson 628, coloured phone; Nokia 3210; Motorola M3788; Nokia 7110; Nokia 8110 'banana phone; Philips Savvy; and the Ericsson T28. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Thirty years ago, they were the height of consumer chic, the gadget that signaled the fact you’d made it – today, they’re as ubiquitous as televisions.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the first mobile phone call made in the UK, an historic chat on January 1985 from Michael Harrison, the son of the first chairman of Vodafone.

He left his family’s New Year’s Eve party in Surrey to drive to London with the Transportable VT1 phone, weighing a hefty 11lb, to make a call to his father Sir Ernest Harrison back in Surrey from Parliament Square.

“Hi Dad, it’s Mike,” he said, “I’m talking to you from Parliament Square, this is the first call from a mobile phone, Happy New Year!”

PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo.PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo.

His mother, Lady Jane Harrison, didn’t fully comprehend that she was witnessing history as the family crowded round the cream-coloured telephone in the hallway.

“It was quite a moment,” she recalls, “but I don’t think we realised quite how big.”

The only record of Michael’s call to his father is a single black and white photograph and, realising the lost PR potential, a quick photo-call was arranged which saw comedian Ernie Wise making ‘the first’ mobile phone call in the UK.

That first call in 1985 had been the culmination of years of hard work, which included fighting for a licence to operate a mobile pone network and developing technology which, although eye-wateringly expensive, was affordable to those with large incomes.

Michael Mould of Unimobiles, with some of his older mobiles, dating from around 1999. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYMichael Mould of Unimobiles, with some of his older mobiles, dating from around 1999. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Considering the immense impact that the mobile phone would eventually have on the world, the reaction to the first call in the UK was surprisingly low-key: The Times ran an 84-word report on the launch of the network which began: “Britain’s first ‘cellular’ radio-telephone service allowing more efficient communication on the move was introduced in the London region yesterday well ahead of schedule.”

The Americans had, of course, beaten the UK off the blocks by a good 10 years. Motorola employee Martin Cooper made a call in New York on a Motorola DynaTAC (dubbed ‘the brick’ due to its vast size and weight) which was nine inches tall, had a talk time of 35 minutes and took 10 hours to recharge.

Michael Mould, 33, has run Unimobiles in Norwich since 2001, a specialist firm which refurbishes vintage, retro and collectable mobile phones and which has a full in-house repair and servicing facility for a wide range of older-generation phones.

Customers include collectors, people who don’t want to switch to 3G phones and people who love using older models of mobile phones in addition to companies who need to replace lost or broken mobiles, customers who want to upgrade their existing phones and people who need phone repairs.

Mobile phone history. Keeping in touch on the Cellnet network. Date: Jan 1994 Picture: EDP LibraryMobile phone history. Keeping in touch on the Cellnet network. Date: Jan 1994 Picture: EDP Library

“We have more than 100 different models of mobile phone in stock and also have a wide range of accessories and parts for many difficult to find and older mobile phones,” said Michael, who has only relatively recently upgraded to a smartphone having “reluctantly parted” with his Nokia N70 four years ago.

“Most of the older phones we sell are from 2000 onwards although we have stocked older phones. Before 1994, phones were on an analogue network which has since been switched off, so they can no longer be used. If people have those phones today, it’s because they’re a collector.

“I started the business when I was still at university in York – I just bought 10 phones and sold them to my friends and it grew from there!

Michael’s first-ever mobile phone was the Motorola C520 which was “very big” which he replaced with the Nokia 8110 a year later, the first example of a ‘slider’ phone with a sliding cover to protect the keypad when it was not in use. The phone was featured in science fiction action film The Matrix, albeit with the addition of a spring-loaded slider which opened itself for heightened dramatic effect.

“For several years, Nokia had some real golden years when they were leading the way in stylish design,” said Michael, who is a firm believer that second-hand doesn’t mean second-rate when it comes to refurbished mobile phones, many of which were only used for a matter of days by their previous owner.

“These were in the years when technology wasn’t moving as fast as it does today, so the biggest advances were in the way that phones looked, rather than the functions they had.”

Today, Michael uses a smartphone for business purposes and, although he remains a fan of older mobile phones, admits that he has been wooed over to the new generation of phones thanks to their multi-purpose uses.

“It’s hard not to be impressed with what phones can do these days,” he admitted, “my Nokia N70 did have internet access but the screen was tiny and it took ages to get on the internet! It was still hard to give it up, though – it had amazing talk time of six to seven hours! - but I don’t think I’d be without a smartphone now.

“I do love old phones, though, and the market for them is definitely still out there. I also like the fact that we can take second-hand phones, older and newer, and give them a new lease of life rather than just send them to landfill.”

I was an early adopter when it came to mobile phones – well, relatively speaking.

I bought my first phone in 1994, when using one in public still elicited a frisson of excitement: hard to believe, I know, but true.

As a junior reporter, I was not on the kind of salary that could really support a mobile phone – to be fair, things haven’t changed much on that front – but I worked in Lowestoft and lived in Norwich, so the deal was that I had to be instantly contactable or I had to live on patch.

My first phone was a Nokia 232, whose claim to fame was that Alicia Silverstone, who played Cher in Clueless, had one, giving the blue candy bar brick a veneer of desirability. Or so I was told.

It seemed ridiculously futuristic and stylish, having won design awards and ‘best consumer phone’ in What Cellphone magazine, with its 16-hour battery life and ability to hold 98 of your friends’ phone numbers in its memory.

Sadly, my phone was far more futuristic and efficient than the base stations it relied on in Norfolk and north Suffolk in order for it to work.

I remember one particularly impassioned phone call from newsdesk which cut out just as an order was barked at me. It took 15 minutes and perching on a hill near Loddon in order to receive the rest of the request: on the plus side, the enraged news editor of the time had calmed down somewhat.

Next I had a Nokia 1610, along with half of the UK. The battery life was 200 hours, which was a revelation, and it looked the business: or, more to the point, as if you owned your own business. At this stage, still only 10 per cent of the population owned a mobile phone. It remains one of the only times that I have ever been ahead of, rather than behind, the (Blackberry) curve. There followed a veritable glut of Blackberries (Pearl, Curve, Torch and Bold) with an LG Chocolate thrown into the mix at some point before I went for the other half of the crumble and started my collection of Apple iPhones.

Today, I join the 93 per cent of the population who owns a mobile phone, the 61 per cent of the UK that has a smartphone, the 16 per cent that lives in a mobile-phone-only household and the 100 per cent of people that becomes irrationally annoyed if they can’t find any mobile phone service.

We’ve come a long way in 30 years: even my Mum can text. She can’t actually make a call, but give it another 30 years and we’ll have cracked it.

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