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Portable Telephones (1976)

The 1976 book Future Facts is filled with predictions of artificial life, underwater cities and traveling from New York to Los Angeles in 21 minutes. Though the last excerpted line is pretty hilarious, this prediction of the "portaphone" of the future is surprisingly accurate.

A hand-held, completely portable telephone will make it possible to place calls while riding in a bus, walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant. Developed by Motorola, Inc., the first "portaphone" system will be installed in New York City by 1976.

The portaphone looks like a fat Princess phone or a high-fashion walkie-talkie. Weighing less than three pounds, the unit can dial and receive calls anywhere within FM signal range of the system's computer-controlled receivers.

As the caller talks over the portaphone, his voice is radioed to the nearest receiver. The signal is relayed into a central computer, then fed into conventional telephone lines. The computer can track the speaker as he moves about the city, switching the conversation to different receivers to maintain a loud and clear connection.

A portable phone user can contact any conventional or portable phone. The initial cost will be $60 to $100 per month, but as the market demand increases, the costs are expected to go down.

The FCC has proposed 115 MHz of spectrum including channels 73 through 88 for two-way applications. Portaphone will probably operate in that frequency range.

Each telephone has a pushbutton keyboard; it's dialed like a conventional pushbutton phone.

Motorola sees a bright future for the portaphone: "We expect there'll be heavy usage by a widely diverse group of people -- businessmen, journalists, doctors, housewives, virtually anyone who needs or wants telephone communications in areas where conventional telephones are unavailable."

For a while at least, the portaphone will remain a business tool or luxury item. In time, however, portaphones will get smaller and cheaper, just as transistor radios have.

One day you'll call almost anyone, anywhere. You could have instantaneous contact with your doctor or the police. People might be brought closer together than ever before -- with the potential to be in voice contact with others. Next step: two-way wrist radios?

Previously on Paleo-Future:

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Reader Comments (15)

Er, is that spam above?

August 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Looks like it.

August 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAaron T.

Yes, CAPSLOCK was indeed necessary.

August 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Leftovers from the era of Dick Tracy.

September 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Jetson

I like how proud the press release is that the portable phones weighs in at "less then three pounds."

September 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJames F

That's interesting. It turns out people like using them instead of conventional phones. Too bad that NY to LA in 21 minutes hasn't happened yet.

September 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

"$60 to $100 per month" for service? Looks like they got that part of things right.

September 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCellByDate

Future Facts, in conjunction with my local library's online card catalog, just sent me on an epic journey of futility and paleofuturistic blueballs. It was listed as being on their shelf, which was more than I'd dared hope for. But once I got to the library, hopes as high as kites, the book was nowhere to be found. Not on the shelf, behind the shelf, under the shelf, on nearby shelves, on far shelves, on carts of books to be shelved...nowhere. A more in-depth computer search revealed that not only was the book not checked out, but it had NEVER been checked out. Apparently after thirty-some years without human contact, the poor thing just melted or flew out a window or maybe nipped off into another dimension.

The staff was as helpful as they could be, and they put the book on hold for me, so when it wanders home or turns up in the library director's bathroom they'll give me a call.

In the meantime, could someone point me at a list of recommended reading on the subject that has brought us all here together? It is unfortunate, but certainly no surprise that "paleo-futurism" is not yet a recognized search term to modern computerized library catalogs...and finding more books about the "future" published thirty years ago seems like a longshot.

September 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCermo

I remember back in the early 90s fiddling with the UHF band on the TV to pick up bits of people's calls. Never heard anything interesting, but it was cool in principle.

September 5, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersdfgsdfg

Under three pounds. Heh. They missed the two major disadvantages of cell phones: the fact that they've become so small it's easy to lose them (i.e., between car seat cushions), and horrible sound quality. I think I'd go for one of those three-pounders if it had the audibility of my old fashioned Bell System clunker.

September 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBeagledad

Did the circa mid '70s porta-phone use modern cellular technology, or some form of FM? The description doesn't quite make that clear.

Actually, that phone in the illustration doesn't look that different from the first-generation cellular phones -- the notorious yuppie "car phones" -- of the mid '80s through early '90s. I also recall, at the time, that power requirements pretty much confined them to cars. I can remember around '90 or '91, when the first fully portable cellphones came out, they came with a kind of "docking station" about the size of a small purse that you had to carry with you on a shoulder strap, kind of like a Tricorder. I first saw them out in California around late '90; it was my first experience with people who lose all contact with immediate reality while yammering away on their mobile phones. Everyone here knows what the first words spoken over a land-line telephone were; it's too bad nobody knows when the question "can you hear me now?" was first uttered by a frustrated cell phone user on a city street someplace.

My wife and a I travel to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico quite often, and as Verizon's coverage barely touches Mexico -- let alone PV -- we've bought a couple of cheap "disposable" mobile phones that we take with us and "charge up" with hours from a pre-paid hours card. Our "Mexico phones" are Motorola RAZRs which are slim and quite elegant but, as one commenter notes above, are easily lost between sofa cushions or under car seats if you're not paying attention.

What's really interesting -- and quite cool -- to note, though, is that there's apparently a growing interest among collectors and "retro style" enthusiasts for those clunky original early '90s "brick" mobile phones; people are paying serious money for them on eBay -- especially if they're still in working condition -- and there's even a company that makes replicas of the circa 1990 "brick" cellphone, albeit with modern cellphone circuitry inside, of course. Iirc, this is also the same company that makes those awesomely letter-perfect replicas of 1930s and 1960s Western Electric desk telephones.

Of course, what I'm still waiting for is a decent replica of the circa-1969 Apollo Mission Control headsets -- the ones you see in all those old films and fotos of MCC during the Apollo Era -- that's compatible with the headset plug in my Samsung flip-phone. "Apollo 11, Houston; reading you five-by-five..."

November 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Flugennock

I wonder what telephones will be have my grandchildren. I'm pretty sure it won't be device that we have today. It will be sth awesome.

January 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSentencje

"Did the circa mid '70s porta-phone use modern cellular technology, or some form of FM? "
Yes, both. The AMPS (analog mobile phone system) used FM for voice. A few of these channels carried FSK (frequency shift keying) digital info instead, these were the control channels which were used for controlling incoming and outgoing calls (and later for carrying text messages.) If you used an AMPS phone, the burst of noise when switching from one cell site to the next was the FSK information telling your phone to switch to another channel.

And, in actuality, they didn't get 115mhz, they got initially 45mhz (split between an "A" band and "B" band, one for the Bell company and one for someone else.) Bell did have prototypes back to the 1970s, but started selling service in 1983. The Motorola Dynatac was actuallly a mere 1.75 pounds when it came out. Then, due to congestion they got another 5mhz added in 1986 (also split between A and B.)

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterhwertz

i looka like a motorola dynatac

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteruser

it looks like a motorola dynatac

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenternormal person

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