The first cell phone call ever by a customer started with a stolen car. It was decided by a race in Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. And it was completed to the granddaughter of Alexander Graham Bell in Germany.
Imagine being the first person to walk on the moon. The first to experience virtual reality. The first to drive a car. The first to use a microwave, or take a digital picture. Or … the first person to make a phone call on a mobile phone. I met that man, David Meilahn, along with one of the engineers who helped make that happen, Stuart Tartarone. Here are their stories.
It all happened in the fall of 1983. Ronald Reagan was president, Mario Brothers had just been released to an arcade near you, a Ford Mustang cost a whopping $6,500, and you could buy a brand new Timex Sinclair color computer for $179.99.
But it started with a stolen car.
“For business, I had a radio telephone, a good old fashioned radio telephone, which was very expensive to buy and very expensive to pay for minutes, and not the easiest thing in the world to use, but it was extremely efficient, all things considered,” David Meilahn told me recently on the TechFirst podcast. “So my car got stolen in 1983, and I bought a new car. I immediately wanted to get a phone because I really missed it. So I went in to purchase one and they said, we can do one of two things. You can do a radio phone again or you can get what’s called a cellular phone, which I had never heard the word before actually.”
Meilahn chose to go with the new thing, and by making that choice he set in motion a series of events that resulted in him making the first ever cell phone call in the wild: the first by a customer.
Naturally, it wasn’t the first ever.
You don’t release untested new technology to customers if you want to stay in business, and AT&T definitely wanted to stay in business. The first cell phone call ever was from a Motorola engineer, Martin Cooper, calling an AT&T rival for a little gloating, flaunting, and taunting. Turns out, however, that AT&T had the last laugh, as Motorola’s commercial service didn’t launch until 1984, a year later than AT&T.
A radio phone, the immediate predecessor to the cellular phone, is pretty much what it sounds like: a phone-like device that is essentially a radio. It connected to a central exchange that piped the call to the landline network of the day. While crystal clear, it was a very limited system with only about 10 or 12 channels, AT&T engineer Stuart Tartarone told me. That meant that in all of Chicago or New York City, 10 or 12 people could talk at the same time, and that’s it: clearly not something that could ever grow to millions or billions of users.
Cell phones were a new innovation, and it’s one that Tartarone spent the first years of his career making a reality, and many years thereafter perfecting.
It started when he was recruited in the early 1970s out of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. The Polytechnic Institute was founded way back in 1854, and is now part of New York University as NYU Tandon School of Engineering.
“In those days, recruiters came to campus,” Tartarone told me. “And the Bell system would always show up with a recruiter from the local telephone company, New York Telephone from Western Electric, which was our manufacturing wing and from Bell Laboratories, which was later to become AT&T Bell Laboratories, which was our technology, our R&D organization.”
Tartarone’s only match on job fair day was with Bell Labs. Unhappy, he spoke to an advisor, who told him that if you were given the privilege of being offered a job at Bell Labs, you had no choice but to accept.
He conceded, went to the follow-up onsite interview in New Jersey, aced it, and was offered a unique opportunity by Joel Engel: the chance to work on something completely new. That turned out to be the cellular system, and it turned out be the career opportunity of a lifetime.
Despite focus groups suggesting there was no market for a mobile phone, the company persisted, built out new base station “cell sites,” central controllers, and electronic switching equipment, plus a newly necessary technology to hand off cellular phone calls from one cell tower to the next without noticeable disruption as people drove and moved around. The first technology for cell phones was 1G: much slower than today’s 4G and 5G. It used analog transmission for voice with a digital channel for controls: what would eventually morph into the basis for text messaging years later.
As Tartarone and Bell built out the system and looked to commercialize it, they came up with an idea for a contest. Early adopters would compete in a race to be the first customer to ever make a cell phone call. But it wouldn’t be a car race.
Instead, it was a footrace, followed by a race to install essentially the world’s first SIM card: a clunky pokey thing about the size of your fist called the number assignment module. The winner would get the right to make the very first cellular phone call by a customer, in the wild, on commercially-available equipment.
The race happened to be on Meilahn’s birthday, October 13. 14 cars with the first mobile cellular phones installed lined up at Soldier Field in Chicago, and 14 technicians were assigned: one to each.
“Each technician that actually installed the equipment in each person’s car was lined up to run a 50 yard dash,” Meilahn says. “When they ran the 50 yard dash, they had to get the keys from the owner of the car, unlock the trunk. And put in the final chip … that activated the system.”
Meilahn’s technician was at a physical disadvantage. But he had the brainpower to make up for it.
“So my technician lines up and he says, ‘Dave, I’ve got some bad news and some good news … the bad news is I’m going to be the last guy to the car,’” Meilahn says. “He was in his mid 30s, so he’s an old man for technicians and all the rest were young 20 year olds.”
“And he said: ‘But I’m going to have the chip in first, I’ll be the first one to install it.’ And then he held up the chip and I believe … that it had about 20 prongs on it and they were about 3 quarter inches each. He said they are going to bend them and they’re going to make it impossible to get it in efficiently.”
Meilahn got one more piece of advice from his older-but-smarter technician: when you start the car, don’t try to make a phone call immediately. The phone would light up like a Christmas tree, but if you try to use it before the lights stop flashing, you’ll trip up the system and it’ll have to reset. So wait.
“As he said, he was the last guy to the car,” Meilahn told me. “And he was the first guy to get this in, to get this plugged in … so I listened to him, did exactly what he said. And our call made it to what was a head car that was bridged across the other 14 cars. That’s where the first phone call went, and then from there it was forwarded to Alexander Graham Bell’s, I believe it was his granddaughter, in Germany. So that was the official, technically the official first call for a commercial cell.”
The funniest thing I learned from my conversation with David Meilahn, the first customer to make a cellular phone call?
When he made the decision to get a new cellular phone system, and he won the race to place the first cellular phone call, he didn’t immediately understand the seminal nature of what he was doing.
In fact, he though it would be outdated soon enough and replaced by satellite phones.
“My sense back then was, here’s the newfangled phone system … technology moves on with the speed of light, so we’ll see how long cell phones last.”
As it turns out, they have lasted, and now most of the digital information that people acquire across the globe comes from a little device in their hand that connects to a cellular phone system with its roots in the technology used for that very first cell phone call in Chicago, Illinois.
Which was at once the biggest and most amazing part of Stuart Tartarone’s career, even though he’s a lifer with 50-plus years at what is now AT&T.
“I’ve got to work on lots of exciting things in my career from there,” Tartarone says. “But there would be nothing like what I got to work on in my first 10 years with the company.”
David Meilahn eventually gave the cellular phone from his car to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. But he still has the car: a 1983 Mercedes-Benz 380sl.
It is, as he put it, a “nice, fun car to run around in” … but a little harder to get into these days.
It’s also a piece of mobile phone history.
Get a full transcript of our conversation here.