One of the cool gifts I was given this past Christmas was a thick book titled Strange But True Science. A compendium of interesting facts, it covers topics that vary from Area 51 and a bit of UFO lore to about five pages on the history of roads (Romans built a 50 000 mile highway system in their empire, with stone roads running as far afield as Spain. Who knew?) to a look at whether Vitamin C prevents colds (their verdict – no, but it might have a slightly beneficial effect in preventing heart disease.)
One thing that caught my attention was their entry on mobile phones. I always was surprised that in the 1954 movie Sabrina, one of the business mogul brothers played by William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, has a phone in his limo. Both brothers wanted to impress Sabrina, played by Audrey Hepburn. The car phone seemed far-fetched to me, yet I wondered how they would have incorporated such a thing if it didn’t exist in reality. I think I first encountered one over three decades after the movie so it was mind-boggling to think of them being around in the ’50s. Turns out, it wasn’t fantasy…but it wasn’t common by any stretch of the imagination.
The book says that as far back as 1946, Bell Labs had established a mobile telephone network in St. Louis, and soon AT&T had it available in a hundred cities across the country. But it wasn’t for everyone. For one thing, callers could only call within the same set of antennae, which is to say basically in-town, local calls only. Worse, only three frequencies were available, “limiting calls to only three users per city”! But with the phone and receiver combined weighing 80 pounds at the time and the service charge of $15 a month (close to $200 a month in today’s funds), it might have been tough to find even three buyers in some cities.
By 1967, prototype celphones were built, but they were limited by their bulk and need for the caller to stay fairly close to the “base station” when using it. Fast-forward another 26 years and an early “smart phone” was made by IBM, allowing for e-mail and even faxing from the phone, but its’ brick-like heft and short battery life meant it wasn’t quite finding its way into many back pockets.
Now? Well, we know the story. As of last year, 97% of Americans had celphones, and 85% of those were “smart phones.” Around the world, 78% of all people have a phone in their pockets…even those who probably don’t have clothes to have a pocket in. Countries as far-flung as Uganda and Azerbaijan have 100% of their land covered by cell networks (it’s estimated you can use your cell in a little over 99% of the U.S. landmass.) Facts I quickly checked by…my celphone and Google.
Now, while I love being able to make a call if I need to when I’m out, or check the latest ball scores – if there were in fact ballgames being played, but that’s a story for another blog – or the weather from a parking lot along the way, I tend to think we love our phones and rely on them a bit too much. But what it does tell me is how much the world can change quickly. In terms of human history, 75 years is a blink of the eye. But telephones were things wired into walls you had to stand still at, and quite possibly shared the line with others with. Devices which cost you an exorbitant amount of money to use to call someone in the next county with, let alone the next country. Now, handheld devices let you get in touch with most people through much of the globe on the go, comparatively cheaply. And let you check your mail or read the news while you’re on hold. It’s an amazing leap forward.
What it gives me hope about is thinking that if we can use technology to make “space age” “sci-fi” phones a reality in 75 years, imagine what other problems we can solve by the 22nd century, if not sooner. Climate change? Our need for fossil fuel energy depleting our resources and despoiling our land and oceans? Toxic chemicals needed to combat pests, many of them invasive? New airborne diseases emerging from Third World markets and threatening humankind ? Hey, we got this! If we can make an 80-pound phone that only called others within about a five miles radius fit in our pocket and instantly call someone on a different continent, these problems too should be solvable. All it takes it enough bright minds and some imagination. And perhaps a latter-day Audrey Hepburn to impress.