Monday, October 13, 2008
Wednesday, October 13th, 1983 was an off-day in the World Series between my Phillies and the Baltimore Orioles. The Phils' 'Wheeze Kids' lineup featuring a number of holdovers from the 1980 world championship team including Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Pete Rose, and Garry Maddox had battled the Orioles of Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, and rookie shortstop Cal Ripken Jr to a 1-1 split in Baltimore, and headed back to Philly for three games at Veteran's Stadium. Newly appointed NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, just one month into his role on the Peacock networks lead desk, had a full plate to report on, including the previous month's accidental shoot-down by the Soviet Union of a Korean airliner which had killed all 269 on board, and the selection of the first-ever black woman, Vanessa Williams, as Miss America. One story that was not receiving the attention that it would go down in history as being deserving of was happening that day at Chicago's Soldier Field. On that morning Bob Barnett, the president of Ameritech, a mobile communications company, hoisted a 2 1/2 pound Motorola DynaTAX 8000X analog phone that cost approximately $4,000 and punched in a phone number which connected him to a man in Germany, the grandson of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. In doing so, Barnett was placing the first-ever commercial cell phone call, launching an industry that has developed into a $150 billion dollar a year worldwide giant of a communications revolution. There were 20 customers of this new 'cell phone' service present at the Soldier Field first-call event, and Ameritech signed up 12,000 subscribers that first year who each shelled out $50 per month plus 40 cents per minute during 'peak' hours and 25 cents per minute during 'off-peak' hours. Those early cell phones were just over a foot long, and were so heavy that they received 'the brick' as a nickname. Today over 84% of Americans own cellphones, which have advanced to the lightweight models that fit easily into your pants pockets, and the usage is so standard that even 46% of American children between 8 and 12 years of age use them. This year my wife and I finally decided to take our household fully wireless, disconnecting our 'land-line' telephone and cutting off that $30+ dollar per month cost. We now operate fully off our cells, with the subsequent advantage of fewer 'crank', 'advertising', 'political', 'fax machine', and simply wrong number calls to annoy us. We are thus available by cell to any of our family, friends, and co-workers wherever we may be during the day, and only need remember to charge their batteries regularly. With basic cell phone costs dropping all the time, and with their now-digital services expanding constantly, it's hard to imagine why anyone would keep their home wired. So while I won't be baking a cake and lighting any candles, let me just say 'happy 25th birthday' or 'happy silver anniversary' to commercial cell phone usage, a service that has liberated us from wires and contributed greatly to the ease and efficiency of our lives in ways only the early marketers in the 1970's and '80's could could have imagined.