Archive for the ‘Bell’ Category

Martin Cooper - from RetroBrick

Martin Cooper, who turns 82 on December 26th, is an electrical engineer – having gained his Master’s degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1957. He began work with Motorola in 1954, and it was during his tenure there, in 1973, that he conceived the first cellular phone. He then spent the next decade working to bring it to market.

Cooper’s inspiration for undertaking the project was the Star Trek television series, in which a small, hand-held “communicator” device was used very much in the manner of a portable phone. Once Cooper had successfully tested his phone prototype, there was an instant shift in thinking among telecommunications gurus, who had for years said that telephoning would depend on the phone’s location, rather than the caller.  At the time, so-called “land lines” and telephone booths were the only means of placing calls, so Cooper recalled with some amusement, in an interview he gave to EngineeringCrossing,  the public’s initial reaction to his walking down the street with a portable telephone:

As I walked down the street while talking on the phone, sophisticated New Yorkers gaped at the sight of someone actually moving around while making a phone call. Remember that in 1973 there weren’t cordless telephones, let alone cellular phones. I made numerous calls, including one where I crossed the street while talking to a New York radio reporter – probably one of the more dangerous things I have ever done in my life.

Interestingly, the first person he called was Joel Engel, his chief rival at AT&T’s Bell Labs, to tell him he was calling on a portable phone.

1983 Motorola DynaTAC portable phone

The original phone weighed a gargantuan 30 ounces, and was referred to as the “Brick.” In 1983, Motorola introduced the DynaTAC phone, which was about half as heavy, with a price tag of more than $3,500. Cellular phone users were few and far between up until about 1990, when the million-subscriber mark was hit.

Cooper says that the project to put a phone together took a little over three months, and he says he wasn’t alone. A crew of industrial designers and engineers built upon Cooper’s concept. In fact, Cooper says there was a contest among five different designers, after which he picked the “simplest” one. He modestly asserts his only contribution was to think of the original idea and to “pull all of Motorola’s wonderful resources to make all of this happen.”

Cooper and his colleagues’ drive to take on AT&T was a prime motivator

A.T.&T./Bell Labs' Joel S. Engel

during the project. He said that at the time, their prime competitor had invented a concept called “cellular communications,” but that they saw a future for this technology only in cars. Motorola, he asserts, vigorously disputed that notion.

Cooper left Motorola during 1983 to create a new company that built software and billing systems for the cellular industry. After selling that firm in 1986, he set upon creating his current venture, ArrayComm (begun in 1992), which is focusing on such concepts as “smart antennas” and faster broadband technology that will deliver the internet to portable users faster and more cheaply. This he began with his wife, Arlene Harris (also a high-tech entrepreneur), and engineers from Stanford University. Starting in 2003, ArrayComm developed a broadband wireless system called iBurst, which has been used successfully in various parts of Australia. And in terms of sheer creative output, ArrayComm’s efforts have been prodigious – with over 420 patents and applications for patents in its name. Cooper insists the increased speed and efficiency of modern computers have enabled their antennas to deliver wireless access at a dramatically reduced cost. This has permitted them to serve millions of wireless subscribers in the Far East.

Martin Cooper and his wife, engineer Arlene Harris

With nearly four decades of success in the telecommunications industry, Cooper’s guiding philosophy is to look to its bright future:

It’s very exciting to be a part of a movement toward making broadband available to people with the same freedom to be anywhere that they have for voice communications today. People rely heavily on the Internet for their work, entertainment, and communication, but they need to be unleashed.

But for all his present work in developing this technology, arguably Cooper’s greatest single achievement remains the development of the original portable phone, which, he asserts, did not occur by accident, but was instead the product of a very methodical and well-planned approach designed to fulfill a basic and fundamental human need – to maintain telephone contact while mobile.


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The New York Times reported yesterday (Dec. 7th) that there was a reunion last month of colleagues who pioneered the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. They met over two days at the William Gates Computer Center on the Stanford campus.

According to the article’s author, John Markoff, there were other pioneering labs at Stanford, but the A.I. lab received less recognition than its peers:

“One laboratory, Douglas Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Center, became known for the mouse; a second, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, developed the Alto, the first modern personal computer. But the third, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or SAIL, run by the computer scientist John McCarthy, gained less recognition.”

SAIL was begun by Dr. John McCarthy (who coined the term “artificial intelligence”) in 1963. Les Earnest was its deputy director. During that time, McCarthy’s initial proposal, to the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Pentagon, envisioned that building a thinking machine would take about a decade. In 1966, the laboratory took up residence in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains behind Stanford in an unfinished corporate research facility that had been intended for a telecommunications firm.

Markoff continues, “SAIL researchers embarked on an extraordinarily rich set of technical and scientific challenges that are still on the frontiers of computer science, including machine vision and robotic manipulation, as well as language and navigation.”

This group of alumni distinguished themselves in other innovative and distinctive ways – with artificial intelligence at the heart of their experimentation. As Markoff notes, “… Raj Reddy and Hans Moravec  went on to pioneer speech recognition and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. Alan Kay brought his Dynabook portable computer concept first to Xerox PARC and later to Apple. Larry Tesler  developed the philosophy of simplicity in computer interfaces that would come to define the look and functioning of the screens of modern Apple computers — what is called the graphical user interface, or G.U.I.”

John Chowning, a musicologist, referred to SAIL as a ‘Socratean abode.’ He was invited to use the mainframe computer at the laboratory late at night when the demand was light, and his group went on to pioneer FM synthesis, a technique for creating sounds that transforms the quality, or timbre, of a simple waveform into a more complex sound. (The technique was discovered by Dr. Chowning at Stanford in 1973 and later licensed to Yamaha.)”

As has been noted previously in “High Tech History,” Spacewar was, in essence the first video game which was programmed with a Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-1 computer. At Stanford, Joel Pitts, a protege of SAIL’s Don Knuth (who wrote definitive texts on computer programming),  “… took a version of the Spacewar computer game and turned it into the first coin-operated video game — which was installed in the university’s student coffee house — months before Nolan Bushnell did the same with Atari.”

In 1980, the lab merged with Stanford’s computer science department, reopened in 2004, and is now enjoying something of a rebirth. Markoff concludes,

“The reunion also gave a hint of what is to come. During an afternoon symposium at the reunion, several of the current SAIL researchers showed a startling video called “Chaos” taken from the Stanford Autonomous Helicopter project. An exercise in machine learning, the video shows a model helicopter making a remarkable series of maneuvers that would not be possible by a human pilot. The demonstration is particular striking because the pilot system first learned from a human pilot and then was able to extend those skills.

But an artificial intelligence? It is still an open question. In 1978, Dr. McCarthy wrote, “human-level A.I. might require 1.7 Einsteins, 2 Maxwells, 5 Faradays and .3 Manhattan Projects.”

Reunion of the S.A.I.L. Laboratory at Stanford University last month

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bellTwo years after the invention of the telephone, in 1878, the first telephone was installed in the White House by the just inaugurated President of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes. The first “official” call was between Alexander Graham Bell and the President. Although the federal government strongly supported this new technology, international long distance phone calls still left a lot to be desired. In the following years, long distance telephone service would be improved in many incremental stages as new associated inventions and more efficient applications of available technologies were developed.

On March 27, 1884  the first long-distance telephone line between New York  and Boston was activated, using copper for the very first time. Copper had greater attenuation of signal that the previous galvanized iron, which was used for the 1881 connection between Boston and Providence.  The cost of a connection between the cities was daytime: $2 and nightime $1.

Subsequently, there were connections made between New York and Philadelphia (1885), Atlanta and Chicago (1890) and New York and Chicago (1892), which was personally opened by Bell (see photo above).

References: Cybertelecom.com; San Jose Mercury News; idPhonecard.com.

— Christopher Hartman

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