The Motorola Museum: 4


In 1981, the first Motorola cellular phone, consisting mostly of a big battery, was marketed almost exclusively to police and emergency services. Few other customers could afford it.

The development of technology that could “hand off” a call from one cell tower to the next was a huge achievement at the time. I like the way the museum curators adjusted the appearance of this display, using Lucite and perforated steel to capture that “modern” 1980s look.

I have a DVD of an early Hong Kong gangster movie in which actors talk into Motorola DynaTAC phones. I wish I owned one. Imagine pulling one of these monsters out of your briefcase during a business lunch.


  1. Man, if I could afford them, I’d have a DynaTAC on my desk right next to a Logitech wedge mouse. Mmmm mmmm good. A die-cast TR7 or a DeLorean? Nah, over the top.

  2. What’re the extra buttons? I see “talk” and “end” (or is that “power”), probably “hold” in the middle.

    Also, did it come with Snake?

  3. In the Seventies, I was a long-haired wannabe hippie hitchhiking in D.C. In the bitter cold, bleeding knuckles and all, a limo stopped and picked me up, it was a government limo, the driver was done for the day and headed home. Inside on the floor was a car phone, it was a large telephone on the hump in the back. He offered to let me call anyone, anywhere, but sadly I didn’t even know anyone with a land line.

  4. When I worked for BT back in the 90s one of the engineers had one on his desk – I thought it was cool even then. Damn thing had a solid metal body & weighed a ton – I guess it would double as a defensive weapon against anyone trying to steal it too ;^)

  5. When I was a kid, this was the height of technology. These days, most people like to wax sarcastic about how brick-like the old cellular phones were, but I’m unashamedly nostalgic for them. Methinks they doth mock too much.

    And I’m glad someone remembered to mention ‘Wall Street.’ Awesomeness.

  6. My father had one of the later models. We were completely in awe how cool that thing was, how amazing to call someone when you’re in the middle of nowhere! This thing was the epitome of cool.
    Unfortunately he kept it way too long (“It is still working!”), when it started to go from cool to silly. I guess he got a new cell phone five years ago, when he couldn’t stand the smirk of business partners any longer.

  7. Alas, this would be an analog phone, and the analog networks all went dark about a year ago.


  8. Miracle Mile, 1988, in which word leaks out about a nuclear missile launch. Denise Crosby, an apparently well-connected government type, pulls one out of her purse to call her boyfriend, who confirms the war is on.

  9. Two sitings of this phone stick in my mind.

    1986 – I was serving as the venue coordinator for shooting sports at the U.S. Olympic team qualifier/Olympic Festival in Houston, Texas. The big poobah of the event made sure whenever he was talking on his phone, he was standing tall in the middle of the biggest crowd of people possible. There were some oohs and ahhs, but there were also some rumblings of “He’s just showin’ off.” Both were applicable.

    2001 – Dallas, Texas, downtown in the hotel/office complex with the ice rink on the first floor. I don’t remember the name, but it’s right next to a train stop, across from the Adam’s Mark, iirc. The place is mostly deserted, either late evening or early on a weekend day, and in walks a whole band of semi-feral, semi-geek youths. It was a motley crew, mostly in black, with lots of add-ons. I swear, one of them still had the whole Michael Jackson-esque collection of 20 bandanas wrapped around one calf. This was a cyber-punk gang from a bad, low-budget near-future sci-fi movie. Then, to my amazement, Mr. Adjunct-to-the-Alpha, Just-a-Little-Too-Geeky-To-Lead reaches into his messenger bag and pulls out one of these phones, making a big deal out of placing a call on it. His friends are slightly amused, mostly mortified. Several pulled out their own itsy-bitsy (by comparison) phones and immediately made calls of their own, seemingly announcing to the world “We’re not really the same as this guy; we actually use modern technology.”

    Man, oh, man, that was funny.

    On the serious side, my hearing isn’t so great. On the few occasions I used this phone, I *really* appreciated the reception/sound quality. Kids these days, raised on micro-sized phones that do everything you can imagine, all of it poorly, simply can’t comprehend the idea that a phone can provide clear audio. I kinda wish they could experience a heavy-iron, rotary dial phone *and phone system*, circa the 1970s. Call me crazy, but actually being able to hear the person on the other end of the line strikes me as a useful feature. Nowadays phone conversations seems to consist mostly of trying to figure out just what the hell is being said through all that static.

  10. I’d feel sooooo important if I had a phone like that – back then. I’d pull it out at the slightest provocation. Makes me think of a scene in Wall Street.

  11. Those things definitely bring back memories. My dad had one of the later versions of that brick and it recently came into my possession. Amazingly enough it still powers on (for little while at least) and seems to work just just fine. A far cry from today’s phones that might last you for the length of your original service contract (if you’re lucky and fairly gentle with them).

  12. Even as we speak, one of these lives on my desk. It was my first cell phone back in the early 90’s. It still worked the last time I charged it up a couple of years ago, although I guess analog service is shut down now. I bought it second-hand from a vaguely high-rollerish type after phones began to shrink but before I could afford one of the newer styles. It sits beside my TI-58, my built-from-a-kit Sinclair ZX81, and my Mac Classic — along with my dad’s folding wooden “tape measure” (he was a carpenter) and my grandfather’s pocket kerosene torch (railway worker). Most people stopping by my office comment on the Mac, but the true geeks fondle the TI-58, the Sinclair and the phone.

  13. That thing is small compared to my vintage Motorola cell phone – an aluminum block 4″ x 4″ x 11″ with a handset on a coiled cord. It was made in 1985 and still worked the last time I tried it 10 years ago.

    Of course, the analog network has been killed to decrease voice quality, so it’s a doorstop now. But still…

  14. That’s not a mobile. This is a mobile(*)

    The first fully automatic(**) mobile phone system was installed in Sweden 1956. The phones weighted 40 kg, some of them was installed in luggable trunks. The system was first in use only in the cities of Stockholm and Göteborg, later Malmö was added. By 1962 the phone weight was down to a miniscule 10 kg. In 1981 the old system was replaced by Nordiskt mobiltelefonisystem (NMT), the first fully automatic cellular phone system, a cooperation between Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. NMT was an immediate success that continues today, it evolved into GSM.

    (*) I’m sorry about the link to a neonazi site, but it was the only picture I could find on the ‘net. There exists some photos where people actually carries the phone around and talk into it, but I haven’t been able to find any of those on the ‘net.
    (**) You still needed a human operator to be connected between wired telephone nets, but the mobile part was fully automatic.

  15. Many Telco employees who used these for several hours a day throughout the 1980’s ended up with brain tumours and brain damage on account of the high levels of radiation they put out.

    It puts the debate about mobile phone radiation levels today in perspective.

  16. @19: That needs a reference. AFAIK there is no demonstrated link between cell phone use and malignant tumor growth.

  17. Ohhh..How I wish I can have those antic phone. If I got it, I must frame it and show it at my living hall. That must be something to talk about with my visitors :)

  18. My dad also had the mid-’80s version of this, back when I was in HS and college. I used it as a prop in one of my college film-school projects.

    It was great when I could borrow it — and great call quality, as #14 benenglish pointed out. Obviously, it wouldn’t fit into a pants pocket, but certainly a briefcase or backpack. IIRC, your tax dollars funded the purchase of this device, to help aid Our Great Nation in defending against the Zoviet threat. Thanks.

    Posts like this make me wish I had a bigger house to store stuff I don’t need… at least for a little while. Before my last move, I finally got rid of this MotoBrick and another ’80s treasure, the gov’t surplus TRS-80 Model III, complete w/manuals, software (on 5½” floppies), acoustic coupler modem, and a daisy-wheel printer enclosed in a huge acoustic cover. (That printer was loud!) Both were still fully functional.

    To help ground myself again, I now will re-read
    The Last Viridian Note.

  19. Bloody Hell. I used to work for a guy who had one of the first Mobiles I’d ever seen. It was like a small briefcase with a separate handset on a curly cord. That phone is tiny compared to the one he had.

  20. “Mulder.”

    Nah, it’s not the same model Mulder had in the 1989 flashback “Unusual Suspects” but that’s the first word that popped into my head when I saw this post.

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