The first cell phone call all started with a stolen car.
In 1983 Chicago resident David Meilahn’s car was stolen. He bought a new one, a Mercedes Benz 280SL 2-seater. But then he needed to replace his old radio-phone … and the sales rep told him there was something new: a cellular phone. He was one of the first few to be selected, then won a race to place the very first cell phone call by a customer, which ended up being from Soldier Field in Chicago, IL, to Alexander Graham Bell’s grand-daughter in Germany.
This is his story, along with the story of Stuart Tartarone, the AT&T engineer who helped build that system and still works for the company to this day.
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AI summary: the first cell phone call
The script titled “First cell call” is a conversation featuring the first commercial cell phone user, David Meilahn, and an engineer who helped develop the technology, Stuart Tartarone. The conversation is hosted by John Koetsier, and captures the historical journey of cellular technology from its birth in 1983 to modern times.
They discuss early mobile technology like the radio telephone, the development of cellular technology, and David’s experience as the first person to ever make a commercial cellular phone call.
AI transcript: chatting with the man who made the first cell phone call as a customer, and the engineer who made it happen
The year was 1983. President Ronald Reagan proposed the Star Wars initiative. Mario Brothers was just released in arcades. Rent was $330 a month. Ford Mustangs cost $6,500. A gallon of gas was 96 cents. And you could buy a brand new Timex Sinclair color computer for just $179 and 99 cents. It was fall in Chicago, October 13, the setting was Soldier Field, the stadium that the NFL Chicago bears had just started playing out in 1971. 14 cars were lined up for a very unusual race: the race to make the first commercial cell phone call ever in the history of the world.
One man won that race and he placed a call from Soldier Field in Chicago to the granddaughter of Alexander Graham Bell in Germany.
This is his story. Along with the story of the engineer who helped make it all happen.
John Koetsier: What would it be like to be the very first person in the entire world to use a new technology that would end up utterly revolutionizing everything? Hello and welcome to TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier.
Today is a super special day for TechFirst. We’re literally going to speak to the first person who ever made a cellular phone call.
The very first cell customer in the world. It was a car phone, of course, and he still has that phone, by the way. We’re also going to chat with an engineer who helped build and commercialize that very first cell phone service. Joining us are David Malon, the very first cellular customer and Stuart Tartarone, who grew up taking phones apart and eventually built and launched AT& T’s global first cell phone service.
Welcome David. Welcome Stuart. Thank you. Thank you. Good to be here. Good to be here as well. Thank you guys so much.
I got to say, the average age of TechFirst guests just rose a little bit.
Stuart Tartarone: So I’m glad. we Don’t want to talk about that, but I guess it must have.
John Koetsier: My friend, you were building cellular networks in the 1970s, so you’re not 25 anymore,
Stuart Tartarone: but I guess not.
John Koetsier: David, I want to start with you. How did this come about? What happened? Did you see an ad in a paper? Did somebody talk to you? How did you learn about this opportunity?
David Meilahn: It all started with the theft of a car . I had my car stolen. And 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.
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.
And that’s a brand new system that’s going to be coming up and they’re hoping to put it on line. In the next three months. So this was the middle of the summer of 83. So I made the decision that I’d rather be more on the cutting edge than on the back end of an old system. So I said I will do that.
They said, we’ll install the equipment. It’ll sit in your car for three months and then we’ll turn the system on. And I said we’ll see if it happens in three months, knowing what normally happens. Unbelievably, within about a month or two, they called and said, How would you like to participate in the kickoff of the cellular system?
We happen to be the first place that this is going to be kicked off for the nation. And I jumped at it because it sounded like a lot of fun. They said, We’re going to have it at Soldier Field, which is perfect because I lived in Burnham Harbor on a boat in Chicago, which shares the same parking lot with Soldier Field.
Nice. I could literally walk to the event, so to speak. So anyway, so on, on the day of the event, it just so happened it was my birthday, October 13th, so that gave me like a doubly blessed day. The result was that they ended up having a race to, with, I believe it was 14 cars, in order to kick off the first cell phone, official cell phone call.
The race had the 14 cars lined up side by side. And they also had the technicians, each technician that actually installed the equipment in each person’s car was lined up to run a 50 yard dash. 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 I’m calling it a chip. I’m probably mislabeling it … that activated the system and it was a cell phone. It wasn’t like a cell phone of today. It was a big box, just like a radio telephone in the trunk of your car that powered I kept calling it a princess phone, but a little phone in the trunk.
And the car. So my technician lines up and he says, Dave, I’ve got some bad news and some good news. What’s the bad news? The bad news was I’m going to be the last guy to the car. 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 Stu’s going to correct me. Probably. 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.
John Koetsier: Was this a SIM card? The very 1st SIM card?
Stuart Tartarone: It was it was called the number assignment module, but as David said,
John Koetsier: a lot bigger. How big was this? Oh, that’s so big. Not huge, but not
Stuart Tartarone: like a SIM card today.
John Koetsier: Now we have micro SIMs and we have eSIMs, which … Back to you, David. Did he win the race or did you win the race?
David Meilahn: So anyway as he said, he was the last guy to the car. And he was the first guy to get this in, to get this plugged in. And he had to give the keys, they had to give the keys to the owner of the car. The owner had to unlock their car door, get in, start their car. He gave me a great piece of advice.
Jeff told me, When you get in the car and you stare at the car, just sit there and look at the phone because it’s going to light up like a Christmas tree. So once all the lights stop flashing, make your call, and don’t do it before or you will trip the system up, it’ll have to reset itself. 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. Wow. So that was the official, technically the official first call for a commercial cell.
John Koetsier: So David, I have to ask a question. You talked about having a radio phone. I have no idea what that means. I understand the concept. It was perhaps a phone system that went over radio waves, perhaps to some central switching station that then interfaces with the landline system. But what is a radio phone?
David Meilahn: I think Stu’s going to know more than me but it was literally radio waves going to us. I think a central, there were operators involved in it and it’s so long ago that it’s hard to exactly remember it, but they converted it basically to the land to a land system.
John Koetsier: Wow. Stuart, what is a radio phone?
Stuart Tartarone: basically, long before cellular , probably dating back to the 1940s, there was mobile phone service.
And there was, a transmitter in people’s cars in the trunk, a handset, big handset and device in the passenger compartment. And as, as David said, it operated almost like broadcast TV or radio. There was one big antenna, in metropolitan areas that broadcasts over the entire area. But the big deal about it…
is that there are only 10 or 12 channels. So think about metropolitan areas like Chicago, and after 10 or 12 calls were made, the system exhausted. Wow.
John Koetsier: Wow. Okay, so would they, David, if you tried to make a call on your radio telephone before you had the cellular call, before you had the cellular phone, then, would it sometimes just fail because the channel was occupied, or would you talk over somebody?
David Meilahn: It probably had some of the characteristics of a party line um, from the standpoint that it had limited use, but it wasn’t so limited that it was a frustration. You just, you lived with the way the system, you understood worked, you understood it, and it really worked fine.
John Koetsier: I want to stick with you, David.
We’re going to go to Stuart in a moment and talk about the technology, the process, building the project, coming up with it, all that stuff. David, did you have a sense at this point that you were doing something that was world changing? That was revolutionary. That would literally culminate in what we have these days.
These tiny little devices in our hand doesn’t have to be in a trunk of a car. Did you have that sense?
David Meilahn: Not at all. I had a sense that, it’s just amazing what has happened, because my sense back then was, here’s the newfangled phone system, technology go, back then now, technology moves on with the speed of light, so we’ll see how long cell phones last and one of my thoughts was, my gosh, they’re going to physically put towers, dot the United States in towers, and that’s how we’re going to talk to each other, so it was a little unusual that I thought, Compared to satellite technology it, I’m not no expert, I said, it seems like you should use satellites, but I understood there’s a whole another layer of difficulty there.
So I just thought it was going to be another method of telephones, and in 10 years, we’ll be using something different.
John Koetsier: Really interesting. You took the first step on the moon and it was just the next day.
It’s interesting right now. Actually there’s a lot of people who are trying to do cell phone service, quote unquote, cell phone service via satellite. So maybe that is the next step, but it’s 50 years later. Stuart, let’s turn to you. You grew up taking phones apart. You’re the typical tinkerer.
How does this work? Take it apart. Your parents must have loved you especially for that, but you became an engineer and you started work on this project. What did you think about it when you first heard about it?
Stuart Tartarone: Going back to what you said yeah, I did take phones apart, except we weren’t supposed to do that.
And because, it was back to the old Bell system where everything was controlled by the Bell system and by the local telephone companies. And I fully expected, I went to an engineering school in Brooklyn, close to where I grew up in Queens. It’s now part of NYU. It’s called, it was called the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn.
And in those days, recruiters came to campus. 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.
And I fully was expecting to talk to someone from New York Telephone because as a New Yorker, I didn’t expect I was going to move out to New Jersey. But lo and behold, I was only given the opportunity to speak to someone from Bell Labs. And afterwards, I was unhappy about that and spoke to my advisor who said words to me that many people of my generation heard, and those words were, if you were given the privilege and used the privilege of working at Bell Labs, you have no choice but to accept.
So I said, Whoa, I said, yeah, I said, I can listen to that went off in those days to what was called a plant interview and drove down from from New York City to what was Holmdale, New Jersey, not too far, went off from Middletown, got off the Garden State Parkway, and I felt like I was in farmland and this was the sticks to me and many ways.
It’s not too different today. If you do have occasion to come, to come here and made a turn and drove down to the road, and there was this tower that was coming out of nowhere. And I was later to find out it was modeled after a transistor. It was the water tower that would supply water to the Bell Labs complex at Homedale.
And that complex was just this beautiful building which was designed by Saranin, who also did major architectural Things like like the TWA terminal in the Great Arch in St. Louis, he designed this building and you walked into it and you looked around. It’s just amazing. And how the interviews were set up at Bell Labs at the time, we got to talk to four different organizations.
And the first organization I got to talk to was an organization called Mobile Systems Engineering. And the interview in those days were a lot different than today. You weren’t put through tests, you weren’t put through having to, design something on the spot. It was a conversation. To me, it was probably a lot refreshing, as opposed to what we do today.
And I spoke to all the people there, and when I got done, the last person I spoke to, a gentleman by the name of Joel Engel, who said to me, Now you’re going to talk to three other organizations, and left this subliminal message in my head. Nowhere will you ever get the opportunity to work on something brand new, something that doesn’t exist today.
And he held up a book, which I… I can’t find my copy of it, was the technical report that AT& T presented to the FCC and what they would do if they were given the opportunity to create a new cellular communication system. They said, this doesn’t exist, and if you join us, you’ll have the opportunity to work on this.
John Koetsier: So you joined, you had that privilege, you took that opportunity, you came on board, did you start working on this project immediately or out of college or what did it take a couple of years till you got embedded in it? No,
Stuart Tartarone: How it worked then and how it works today. And you, yeah. You walk in the door as I did in the end of July, 1972, and you’re right into doing something.
And the opportunity I was given at a school was to work with at and t Marketing on doing a market survey of the opportunity for cellular communications so I could apply some of my statistical background in looking at data and working with this company. And they did. This is like 1973 by the time we got out there, very professional survey survey questions went out, there were focus groups and major markets, and I got to sit near the side of the glass and listen to customers and talk about what they might do with it.
And the conclusion from that survey was there was really no market for such a survey. This was 1973. No market for such a survey, for such a service.
John Koetsier: Amazing. And not necessarily shocking or surprising because when you come out with something entirely new, entirely different, you have to invent the market, right?
You have to show what is possible and you have to say, Oh. Interesting. I didn’t know I wanted that. In fact, I didn’t want that until I understood what it was. So you’re in a big organization, you’re in a massive organization that basically preeminent in its day. They have this new idea, this new technology, but the market surveys aren’t promising.
They aren’t saying, wow, this is a multi billion dollar opportunity. Jump on it right now. How did it actually start? Did somebody take a big risk?
Stuart Tartarone: Simple answer is yes. But at the time we were this very large company called the Bell system. A million employees strong and there were pockets of revenue to invest.
That was the great thing. If you look back over the history of Bell Labs. And a lot of, and if you think about it, if that didn’t exist, a lot of the technologies, if you think about the digital and wireless age was invented by AT&T Bell Laboratories, it led to the transistor, to digitization, information theory, solar panels, charge couples, devices. And cellular technology. All of those were invented by Bell Labs and all of those were invented in New Jersey. Amazing. And there was this thought, what would need to be done, and investments were put in place. Think of the transistor.
The transistor, which is the basis of everything. Millions of transistors in this device today. But the technology that was created by AT& T was given to the larger industry to build on and use. Think about what was the big first thing transistors were used for, transistor radios that came out in the 1950s.
John Koetsier: Okay, so you’re working there, you’re bringing out this technology, you’re about to launch it David is unaware at this point but, he’s, you’re starting to work with the network and the installers and everything like that. Talk about the technology. You what kind of, I came on to using a mobile phone when we had 3G.
And, then LTE was a big deal, right? Which is essentially 4G, I believe. And now 5G is the thing, right? So give us a sense of where the technology fits on that scale.
Stuart Tartarone: Yeah, so I go back to what David and I talked about. The concept of one big transistor. The big underlying.
Concept of cellular was to be able to use low power transmitters and take the frequency spectrum. This is scarce commodity. It’s a scarce commodity back in those days, scarce commodity today and but able to reuse that many times. If you’re broadcasting at low, at low power, you can reuse that.
That’s the whole basis. Cellular technology. And this concept was brought forth by two people, Doug Ring and W. Ray Young, back in the 40s. They actually wrote a paper that talked about this. And Ray Young actually became my first department head at Bell Labs when I started, but he went back to the 40s and this.
So you have this concept, and how do you implement this concept? And back in those days, we had You know, cell sites, we call them base stations, originally cell sites, to, to provide the signal, you needed a smart controller, a central controller, and Bell Labs had invented electronic switching, came out in the 60s to be able to have stored program controls, control switching machine.
And the other element of it was a device in people’s cars. But one of the big deal things that just happened as I joined to talk about enabling technologies is the microcomputer was born by Intel. Without that, none of this would have been possible because that was the enabling technology, the game changer.
That made us possible to develop and deploy the system.
John Koetsier: Talk a little more detail over what the innovation was in cellular networks that we heard David talk about he had a radio telephone and you said, Hey, you could get like. 10 or 12 conversations going at the same time. And then you were out of spectrum.
You’re out of bandwidth. What was the key innovation in cellular technology? You mentioned the low power. So you’re it’s low power. It’s local. You’re talking to a local cell tower. So somebody else could be maybe on the same frequency, but five miles down the road, 10 miles down the road, they’re talking to a different tower, was that the only innovation or were there other innovations allowed thousands, millions to use phones?
Stuart Tartarone: So related to that is, think about it, it was a vehicular service at the beginning. And as cars drove around the city you had to track where those cars were and to be able to recognize that they were driving at an area that they were in and needed to be served by a cell site from a, from another cell site.
This is the concept called handling, handing off from one cell site to another. And the ability to do that, to track that, to receive the signal, to look at the algorithms by which you’re going to tell of, this vehicle, this device sitting in someone’s vehicle, to switch from one channel to another channel, that was a huge innovation and all the and part of it has to do with the distributed nature.
And one of the things I got to work on very early was all these things, were coming out is the distribution among. Different elements of the system from the switch to the cell site controller to the mobile controller and how to optimize that in the best way so it would support this growth.
John Koetsier: So landline phones were analog the signal was, transmitted as analog and recreated as sound in somebody else’s ear.
Were the first cell phones digital? Did you send the voice digitally?
Stuart Tartarone: No, because again, let’s roll back to the 70s. Just based upon what you said, it was analog voice. And behind that was a whole digital logical processing that went through with commands coming from the switch coming from the cell site to direct the mobile what to do.
So you had this, voice analog and you had the control structure, which was all digital.
John Koetsier: Is that control structure what opened the door for SMS for texting?
Stuart Tartarone: It’s, we’re talking. We’re talking many years later. We’re talking many years later. So I’m not sure I would say that. Yeah, it was that basis.
But, by the time texting came around, I think we were into 3G uh, when it came around and lots of changes from 1G, the 2G, the 3G. That was all brand.
John Koetsier: Would you have characterized the transmission speeds or the transmission technology in the first days that David had his cellular car phone as 1G?
Stuart Tartarone: Yes, it was. It was 1G. And, but the quality of it, the voice quality, because we’re talking about someone in someone’s vehicle with a high power transmitter in their trunk. It was exceptional. It was interesting. It was as good. David can, can provide the feedback on this. It was good as a landline.
David Meilahn: It was crystal clear. It was excellent.
John Koetsier: Wow. So it was better in some ways than what we have now. Certainly in the days of 3G, voice quality wasn’t amazing. Maybe 4G as well. Huh?
Stuart Tartarone: And we knew it at the time because, think about it. This is a low power, this is low power, and you just could not get the same quality that you could with a high power transmitter in someone’s car and a similar receiver.
John Koetsier: So David, you were in at the very beginning of a revolution did you keep upgrading? Did you stay on the cutting edge and you still have that phone today, right? You still own that first phone? Yeah I
David Meilahn: actually there was an event, I think it’s about 10 years after 1983, after that went on and my apologies.
John Koetsier: It’s all good. Everybody,
David Meilahn: what can you do? Let me, it’s a new phone system too, I gotta find how to.
John Koetsier: I think if you hit it with a hammer, then it will stop.
Stuart Tartarone: That’s a necessary device.
David Meilahn: Those darn landlines. Anyways. About 10 years after the cell phone uh, started being used commercially in 1983, they went to the digital.
And they had an event to go to digital and they dragged me out for this next event. And I actually consigned my phone as a donation to the museum of science and industry. So I still have a car that I, that the phone was, a phone call was made in but the equipment is now at the museum of science and industry in Chicago.
John Koetsier: Amazing. Amazing. What was the car by the way?
David Meilahn: It was a 1983 Mercedes-Benz three 80 sl. Nice fun little car to run around in now. Not as easy to get it into as when I made the first call. .
John Koetsier: Excellent. David, if as you look back so you talked about at the time. You didn’t have the sense that this was revolutionary, that you were the first person to make a cellular phone call that this would take over the planet, like literally but as you look back and as you use your mobile phone today what’s it mean to you?
David Meilahn: I think it’s amazing how it started, what the average person thought about it. And the different, I’ll call them milestones as, for the user. And it, and whereas it was an instrument for business basically only, or the wealthy it has over the years progressed to, bag phones, the brick phone the then a handheld cell phone, flip phones, and then all of a sudden they became smart phones.
And the actual phone call part of a telephone is, Not necessarily the most important piece. It’s that everybody’s glued to their smartphone. And it’s able to be bought by everybody in the world. It does not have to be only for the business or the people who can afford it. Everybody can afford a cell phone.
And they use them like crazy,
Stuart Tartarone: right?
John Koetsier: Amazing. Amazing. Stuart, maybe some closing remarks from you, because you’re still working AT&T. Amazingly, I’m not going to ask your age, but you’re no spring chicken. This has been the work of your life in a lot of sense, and I’m sure you’ve done a million other things as well, but this is this the biggest thing that you’ve done in your career is launch this and being part of this?
Stuart Tartarone: Most definitely. So talking about first cell phones, this was. One of the very first cellular phones that existed. This was the control unit that went into these vehicles. I’ve had this with me all these years and it really was to come out of school. A lot of people don’t have this opportunity to come out of school and back to what I said earlier, to work on something brand new that didn’t exist, that people questioned the market for.
And then here we are today with the proliferation that’s occurred with, with the, with going from here to here. So what a huge transition. And yes I’ve got to work on lots of exciting things in my career from there to personal computers to lands and today involved with with as we look at our network as as we visualize, virtualize our network and, working on.
Today, tools to improve how we develop software, platform engineering, but, and, and even got to work on one of the first internet banking applications, but there would be nothing like. I got to work on my first 10 years with the company.
John Koetsier: Amazing. And what a privilege, as you were told by your advisor, your student advisor, way back when in the early 1970s.
And I have to echo that today. What a privilege to chat with you, David and what a privilege to chat with you, Stuart. I thank you for your time and thank you for sharing your story. It’s fascinating. It’s part of history and I really appreciate it.
Stuart Tartarone: Thank you so much. Thank you. Good to see
David Meilahn: you. Thank you.
Thank you. Good to see you.
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