Commentary & Analysis
When It Rains It Pours
We’re all familiar with the first telegraph message, the first phone call, and maybe the first message sent from one computer to another . But what about the first cellphone call?
By Richard Romano
Published: December 16, 2016
We’re all familiar with the first telegraph message (Samuel Morse’s “What hath God wrought?”), the first phone call (Alexander Graham Bell’s “Mr. Watson, come here—I want to see you,” although it’s recalled slightly differently by Watson), and maybe the first message sent from one computer to another (Leonard Kleinrock’s “Lo,” which was supposed to be “log” but the computer crashed before the last letter was received). But what about the first cellphone call?
On April 3, 1973, as part of a Manhattan press event demonstrating a new portable cellphone (distinct from a carphone, which had been coming into vogue among Hollywood player types), Martin Cooper, an engineer working for Motorola, walked out onto Sixth Avenue with a prototype of what would become the bricklike Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, and, while walking down the street, called Joel Engel at Bell Labs in New Jersey. Engel was working on AT&T’s competing cellphone initiative. “I’m calling you from a cellphone,” Cooper said into the phone. “A real, portable, handheld, personal cellphone.” So, basically, “nyah nyah nyah.” Maybe it doesn’t have the poetry of its predecessors, but there it is.
It would be another 10 years before it became commercially available, so for Cooper and his team, it was back to the salt mines.
Speaking of salt mines, about four years ago, Bulgarian archaeologists unearthed what is believed to be the oldest European town. Dating as far back as 5400 B.C., Solnitsata (located near what is now Provadia, Bulgaria) was a salt production center. The town boasted natural springs with high-salt-content water, so residents evaporated the water and sold the salt throughout the Balkans.
Salt mining may not be “the world’s oldest profession,” but it’s up there. Indeed, some of the earliest human settlements and communities were centered around natural sources of salt, since for millennia, before refrigeration, salt was the only available food preservative. (If you see an English town whose name ends in –wich, that’s an indication that it was a salt production center.) Salt thus became a valuable trading commodity, oftentimes more valuable than gold.
It was also recognized early on that salt was an antiseptic. In ancient Rome, the Latin sal meant “salt,” salus meant “welfare or health,” and salarium meant “salary.” By the way, it’s not true that Roman soldiers were paid in salt, but part of the salarium was used to buy salt. Our word “salad” comes from herba salata, or “salted vegetables”—Romans ate their veggies with a kind of brine dressing. And the Via Salaria was the major road that led from Rome to the Adriatic Sea, Rome’s source of salt.
In the Middle Ages various superstitions arose surrounding salt, primary among them being that spilled salt was seen as a harbinger of doom, and thus arose the practice of tossing a pinch of it over the left—or “sinister”—shoulder to ward off evil. Medieval gobbledygook to be sure, but, hey, it was the Middle Ages. Salt was even an important commodity in colonial America, and the fact that Americans had easier access to it than the British played a role in the success of the American Revolution. In the mid-19th century, the Gold Rush swept prospectors West, and boosted demand for salt on the West Coast, creating a need for transcontinental salt transportation.
A Nebraska newspaper editor named J. Stirling Morton not only founded the first Arbor Day (on April 10, 1872, where it has been estimated that about a million trees were planted), and served as Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture, but also had a son named Joy Morton. In 1880, Morton’s bundle of Joy started working for Chicago’s Richmond & Company, which was a sales agency for Central New York’s Onondaga Salt (Syracuse is still called the “Salt City”) to distribute NaCl to the Midwest and beyond. In 1889, Morton fils acquired a controlling interest in Richmond & Company and renamed it Joy Morton & Company. In 1910, it was renamed the Morton Salt Company. (The Morton Salt Girl and the tagline “When it rains it pours” first appeared in 1914; the slogan referred to the addition of an anti-caking agent that prevented Morton salt from clumping in humid weather, a problem for cooks at the time.)
Here things take a strange turn.
In 1902, Joy Morton was approached by an electrical engineer named Frank Pearne, who was looking for a sponsor for a project of his: a system for printing telegraph messages. To find out if the project was worth its salt, as it were, Morton consulted with a mechanical engineer working for his brother Mark’s company, a man named Charles Krum. Krum saw potential and he and Pearne set up a laboratory to develop it further with funding from Morton. Pearne lost interest in the project and quit to become a teacher, but Krum kept at it, filing a patent for a “type wheel printing telegraph machine” in 1904. Two years later, the Morkrum Corporation was founded (named for Morton and Krum), and two years after that, the Morkrum Printing Telegraph was field-tested. Finally, in 1910, a commercially available teletypewriter—called the “Blue Code Version” of the Morkrum Printing Telegraph (the company color of the Postal Telegraph Company, which bought it, was blue; there was also a “Green Code Version”)—was installed on telegraph lines between New York and Boston.
Over the course of the next couple of decades, there were some mergers and acquisitions. In 1925, Morkrum merged with the Kleinschmidt Electric Company, becoming the Morkrum-Kleinschmidt Company, which was quite a mouthful. Three years later, it wisely changed its name to Teletype Corporation. Finally, in 1930, Teletype was acquired by American Telephone and Telegraph where it continued as a division of Western Electric until the 1980s, when Western Electric was absorbed into AT&T. Teletype Corporation became AT&T Teletype and lasted until 1990 when the teleprinter business was shuttered.
In the 1950s, a young engineer joined the Teletype Corporation, a refugee from AT&T’s Bell Labs, and began working on teletypewriter machines. In 1954, this engineer was offered a job at Motorola in the mobile equipment group, which at the time comprised primarily radio-based products. In 1967, one of the technologies he oversaw development of was a cellular-like handheld police radio system that was created for the Chicago Police Department. Shortly thereafter, he—and we are speaking of Martin Cooper, of course—would go on to become “the father of the cellphone.”
Today, more than 40 years after Cooper’s demo, along that same stretch of Sixth Avenue, virtually everyone is walking and talking—or texting—into a cellphone. And, it being New York, you will often overhear some very salty language.
Randy Alfred, “March 10, 1876: ‘Mr. Watson, Come Here…,’” Wired, March 10, 2011, https://www.wired.com/2011/03/0310bell-invents-telephone-mr-watson-come-here/.
Joshua Brustein, “The Story Behind the First Cell Phone Call Ever Made,” Bloomberg, April 24, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-04-24/the-story-behind-the-first-cell-phone-call-ever-made.
Thomas H. Maugh II, “Bulgarians find oldest European town, a salt production center,” Los Angeles Times, November 01, 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/01/science/la-sci-sn-oldest-european-town-20121101.
“Our History,” Morton’s Salt, http://www.mortonsalt.com/heritage-era/her-first-appearance/.
Molly Oldfield and John Mitchinson, “QI: Quite Interesting facts about salt,” The Telegraph, June 10, 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/qi/7817138/QI-Quite-Interesting-facts-about-salt.html.
“salt,” salary,” “salubrious,” and “salad” at the Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com.
Philip Rosenbaum, “Web pioneer recalls 'birth of the Internet,'” CNN, October 29, 2009, http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/10/29/kleinrock.internet/.
“Martin Cooper,” Simply Knowledge, http://simplyknowledge.com/popular/biography/martin-cooper.
Gil Smith, “Morkum Printing Telegraph Page Printer,” Baudot.net, http://www.baudot.net/teletype/MPT.htm.
“A Brief History of Salt,” TIME, March 15, 1982, http://time.com/3957460/a-brief-history-of-salt/.
“Teletype Corporation,” Wikipedia, last modified on November 28, 2016, retrieved November 28, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teletype_Corporation