You Never Forget Your First Cell Phone

Rebecca Greenfield
The Atlantic Wire

On April 3, 1973 Martin Cooper of Motorola made the first ever call on the first ever truly portable telephone. But it wasn't until ten years later, in 1983, that Motorola sold its cellular phones commercially—and at $3,500, well, some might call that prohibitively expensive, even and especially adjusted for inflation. So it wasn't really until the cell phone's rebellious '90s phase that it really went mass market; mobile communications reached a "tipping point" with 46 percent penetration around 1999. It was in and around and just before that time that much of The Atlantic Wire staff got its hands on Cell Phone No. 1. In honor of today's 40th anniversary, we take a collective—and very fond, if clunky, and sometimes fuzzy—look back:

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The Family Cell Phone For some of our staff, early cell phones were something of a collective luxury. "I think my first cell phone was one my family shared for car rides," remembers J.K. Trotter. In addition, many of us convinced our parents to let us have our own phones for "safety reasons." Matt Sullivan's folks got him a beeper and a cell phone when he went off to a "big-bad fancy all-boys private middle school," even if two devices ended up cheaper than one his early family Verizon bill: "My mom was freaking out that I'd run off down Park Avenue somewhere." I convinced my parents to get me a phone for a spring break trip to visit my brother in college while I was still in high school. The phone, arguably, would keep me safe from all that evil partying. (My parents had no problem sending me off for a weekend of college partying. The cell phone was the issue.) 

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...and Getting a Nokia Rip-Offs Instead While all the cool kids had the Nokia brick, some of us had the knock-off version. My parents would only let me get the free phone included with a brand-new (and what would become life-long) Verizon contract, so I got a Kyocera version of the little guy. Even though it didn't have Snake, it still reached a certain bar of cool, as my fellow one-time Kyocera owner and colleague Zuckerman confirms: "I just remember I really wanted a really tiny non-flip phone for my first phone," she recalls. It's unclear why, exactly, these open-faced phones trumped the more compact, more protected ones earlier on. It probably had something to do with the "snake game" and the fact that those black Motorola StarTACs were regarded as parent phones.

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The RAZR and Its Flip-Phone Clones "The RAZR was a huuuuuuuge deal," notes Connor Simpson, who did not have the shiny, slim Motorola device, but a lesser flip-phone. It was the first gadget that understood a cell phone's capability as both a fashion accessory and status symbol. "The rich kids had the Motorola Razr. Maybe a Nokia. But mostly Razrs," adds Sullivan, who had neither. While the knock-offs lacked all the style and finesse of Motorola's condensed bundle, they tried. "LG (or whichever company, maybe Motorola) tried really hard to make it look like the phone was made out of metal, with like, painted plastic," notes Trotter when remember his first  very own cell phone, an unmemorable LG product. In other words: It was no RAZR.

Just about a year and a half ago, a good chunk of the Atlantic Wire staff owned what we now affectionately refer to as "dumbphones." Even then, those old-fashioned few were luddites, clutching to earlier times, and outdated gadgets. Since, even the most stubborn of us have upgraded to a full-fledged smart phone. But you never forget your first. For the most part.