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Sep 11th 2019

Technology in the ’80s: The Cellular Solution

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From space travel to the World Wide Web, email to nanoscale robots, humanity’s constant drive for improvement and innovation has changed the course of history. So hop aboard and get comfortable — the time machine is all fired up and ready to relive the top scientific discoveries of decades past. Let’s go!

First it was the 1960s and the development of microchips, then a quick stopover in the ’70s for the personal computer. Now it’s time to for a hard look at technology in the ’80s — and the world’s first mobile phones.

Let’s Get Digital

The ’80s were about getting noticed — think neon leotards, suits with shoulder pads and the rise of punk music. Subtle was not in the decade’s vernacular as evolving technologies provided easy access to low-cost products and services. It’s hardly a surprise that the “Me Generation” took on the task of developing over-the-top cellular technologies to function as chunky, clunky status symbols — and ultimately paved the way for the widespread uptake of mobile devices.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Current mobile devices rely on microwaves to carry signals from one device to another, which have wavelengths of one meter to one millimeter and frequencies between 300 MHz and 300 Ghz, according to Lumen Learning. This offers a distinct advantage over radio waves, which have longer wavelengths and are more susceptible to interference while traveling over long distances.

But even using more powerful microwaves presents a problem: limited bandwidth. As noted by Physics.org, around 800 frequencies are available to any mobile phone network — what’s more, two-way communication requires two frequencies, one for transmitting and one for receiving. Cellular networks solve this problem by dividing network coverage areas into hexagonal, isolated “cells” each equipped with their own signal tower, allowing frequencies to be reused rather than forcing users to wait.

The first batch of car-connected mobile phones often required users to wait up to 30 minutes just to place a poor-quality call. Adoption of cellular methodology made multiple calls on duplicate frequencies possible and significantly expanded the mobile market’s reach.

Cell-ing Points

The ’80s sparked some interesting trends, but it wasn’t the first decade dedicated to mobile communications. As noted by The Washington Post, “field telephones” were used during the First World War to coordinate military operations, and by 1941 hand-held radio transceivers were developed for vehicles and then adapted for use during the Second World War. 1973 saw the first cellular telephone call — made from a giant brick of a thing that weighed more than two pounds and provided just 30 minutes of talking time after a 10-hour charging cycle.

In the early 1980s, the first commercially available phone hit the market. For just $4,000, which is currently about $10,000 adjusted for inflation, users could get their hands on Motorola’s 1.7-pound monster, the DynaTAC 8000x. Cue up the synthesizer and get ready to take Wall Street by storm — with this phone in hand (and one undoubtedly muscular arm after all that lifting), you were going places.

By 1989, Motorola debuted a smaller version called the “MicroTac” which was small enough to fit (badly) in shirt pockets and bore more than a passing resemblance to original “Star Trek” communicators.

And lo, the mobile revolution was born.

The Future Is Mobile

Building on the cellular advances of the 1980s, and bolstered by the falling size and cost of microchips, mobile devices shrunk in dimension even as they rapidly gained new capabilities. By the mid-1990s, “smart” phones included access to email and faxes, and in 1999 BlackBerry released its first two-way pager with native web browsing. In 2007, the original iPhone hit store shelves — forever changing the way consumers interact with mobile devices.

Today, the market includes everything from smartphones to tablets, internet-connected sensors to wearable devices, all connected via myriad networks types including LTE, 4G and 5G. In addition, users now demand speedy, secure wireless connections to empower everything from streaming digital content to sharing social interactions across global content networks.

And it all started with that ugly brick of a phone.

Talking Points

If technology in the ’80s had a motto, “hideous but usable” might be the most accurate. While the decade’s cellular phone solutions were hilariously chunky and unbearably primitive by current consumer standards, there’s no doubt that ’80s mobile tech remains one of the world’s top scientific discoveries.

Next up? ’90s kids remember: the birth of the World Wide Web.

Exploring the unexpected things, and then applying findings to improve technology,  has been part of the Northrop Grumman culture for generations. Click here to search jobs in scientific innovation.

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