The Story So Far

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth trace their roots back to Hollywood starlet Hedy Lamarr.

The unlikely birthplace of modern mobile and wireless technology was a Hollywood dinner party in 1940, in a conversation between actress Hedy Lamarr—dubbed "the most beautiful girl in the world"—and film composer George Antheil. The topic? How to build a radio-controlled torpedo that couldn't be jammed by the Nazis.

Lamarr's first husband was a munitions maker, and she knew torpedoes. Her idea was to change frequencies rapidly to keep the radio signals to the torpedo from being jammed. Antheil's first major composition, Ballet Mechanique, used synchronized player pianos, and he suggested using paper rolls with holes punched in them to implement Lamarr's frequency-hopping idea.

In 1942, Lamarr and Antheil received a patent for the invention of spread-spectrum radio, which would eventually become the basis for wireless networking and many digital cellular telephone systems. But details of the invention were kept secret, even though the U.S. Navy decided not to use it. After all, there was a war going on.

World War II spurred another key element of mobile communications when, in 1940, the company that would later become Motorola Inc. developed the first lightweight, handheld two-way radio for the U.S. Army. The Motorola "handie-talkie" weighed only 5 lb. and had a range of one to three miles.

But it was after the war that wireless personal communications began to take off. In 1946, AT&T Corp. launched the first commercial mobile telephone service for private customers in St. Louis. But limited capacity meant that 30 years later, only 44,000 U.S. Bell system customers had mobile phones - with another 20,000 on five- to 10-year waiting lists.

That would soon change. AT&T researchers had started work on the cellular concept in 1947. In 1973, Motorola project manager Martin Cooper used the first working prototype of a handheld cellular telephone to call his rivals at Bell Labs. In 1978, the telephone company in Bahrain began operating the world's first commercial cellular telephone system for use by individuals. In 1983, the first U.S. commercial cellular service was launched in Chicago, and by 1988 there were 1.5 million U.S. cell phone subscribers.

Meanwhile, solid-state electronics had replaced the piano-roll technology of the original spread-spectrum invention, and by the early 1960s it was being used to keep radio communications secure from prying ears.

The same solid-state technology cut the cost of computing and made computer networks a necessity. And where wires couldn't go, a wireless network had to become a reality. In 1970, University of Hawaii professor Norman Abramson launched the first radio-based computer network, AlohaNet, which linked machines throughout the Hawaiian islands.

Digital technology also sparked handheld computing, which began with a flurry of heavy, battery-powered calculators in the early 1970s. In 1974, Hewlett-Packard Co. introduced its HP-65, the first programmable pocket calculator. In 1980, Sharp offered the first "pocket computer." A calculator that could be programmed in Basic, Sharp's PC-1211 gained popularity when RadioShack stores sold it as the RadioShack Pocket Computer.

In the 1990s, it all began to converge. In 1991, digital cellular phone networks using spread-spectrum technology began operating in Europe and the U.S. In 1993, Nokia Corp. developed text messaging between mobile phones. That same year, Apple Computer Inc. introduced its Newton MessagePad, a handheld computer that boasted handwriting recognition, an idea that took off three years later with the PalmPilot 1000.

In 1999, Apple launched AirPort, the first wireless networking product based on Wi-Fi—which uses spread-spectrum technology. So does Bluetooth, the wireless system developed by Ericsson Mobile Communications AB researcher Jaap Haartsen, which began appearing in phones and handhelds in 2000.

And as the boundaries between palmtops, handheld phones and wireless networks vanish, the challenge now isn't solving a technical problem, but managing the technology that grew from that Hollywood dinner party conversation.

And now, on with the story. ...

1pixclear.gif
1999: Apple's AirPort wireless networking product is the first to use Wi-Fi.

1999: Apple's AirPort wireless networking product is the first to use Wi-Fi.

1973: Motorola's Martin Cooper develops the first working prototype of a handheld cellular telephone and then spends 10 years bringing it to market.
1973: Motorola's Martin Cooper develops the first working prototype of a handheld cellular telephone and then spends 10 years bringing it to market.

1940: Actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil begin work on spread-spectrum technology.

1940: Motorola develops the first lightweight, handheld two-way radio, the “handie-talkie.”

1946: In St. Louis, AT&T launches the first commercial mobile telephone service.

1962: Spread-spectrum radio is used for secure communications during the Cuban missile crisis.

1970: AlohaNet links computers throughout the Hawaiian islands, with the first radio-based computer network.

1973: Motorola’s Martin Cooper develops the first working prototype of a handheld cellular telephone and then spends 10 years bringing it to market.

1980: Sharp’s PC-1211, a pocket calculator that can be programmed in Basic, is sold as the RadioShack Pocket Computer.

1983: In Chicago, Baby Bell Ameritech launches the first U.S. commercial cellular service.

1991: Digital cellular phone networks begin operating in Europe and the U.S.

1993: Nokia develops text messaging between mobile phones.

1999: Apple’s AirPort wireless networking product is the first to use Wi-Fi.

2000: Bluetooth wireless networking begins to appear in mobile telephones and handheld computers.
1993: Nokia develops text messaging between mobile phones.
1993: Nokia develops text messaging between mobile phones.

Special Report

Tiny Gadgets, Huge Costs

Stories in this report:

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
 
Shop Tech Products at Amazon