Before Zack Morris
January 22, 2015 4:49 AM   Subscribe

The Mobile Telephone in Bell System Service, 1946–1993. Descriptions and photographs of car phones and briefcase phones on the "0G" pre-cellular mobile systems.
posted by grouse (20 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
My granddad had a pre-AMPS car phone. Between the huge box in the trunk and the whip antenna that was taller than I was, it's a good thing he had a big boat of a Lincoln.

The reason it sticks in my mind so much is that the phone itself looked like a plain old desk set of the era, unlike my dad's futuristic looking Motorola job with an LCD screen and the ability to dial your own numbers.

Funny that the way you knew someone was calling if you weren't in the car is that the car started honking seemingly out of nowhere, much like factory alarms these days. I can't understand how that was considered in any way acceptable.
posted by wierdo at 5:11 AM on January 22, 2015 [8 favorites]

When I was growing up I thought car phones were the coolest thing. It was my understanding they were very expensive and very limited in availability due to the limited bandwidth available, so you had to be a real big shot (like wierdo's granddad or Stuart McMillan) to have one. When I was in med school in the mid 80's one of my classmates was into ham radio and had a unit in his car that he could somehow patch into the phone system. I thought it was cool enough that I considered getting a ham radio license so I could do the same thing, but about that time cell phones came out and the rest is history.

Is that William F. Buckley (that crypto-Nazi!) in chapter 5?

Notice that this guy should be shopping for a new spare tire! in chapter 1 made me laugh.
posted by TedW at 5:46 AM on January 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

The way that first 41A handset is set up, I'm picturing it's cord getting wrapped around the clutch pedal, and possibly also the gas pedal.

Thanks anyway, I'll just listen to the radio.....
posted by easily confused at 5:49 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was just joking, but apparently it is WFB!
posted by TedW at 5:49 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Whoa, flashbacks! My dad's employer had paid for him to have a car phone right about 1988 ... When I started driving his old car a few years later, right after the Tammy Zywicki murder, my parents paid to keep it going. It was one of those dual IMTS/AMPS although I'm sure it was cellular locally by the time I was driving and I don't think I used it even once, since there were plenty of pay phones (my parents said I had to pay for calls unless it were a super emergency) and I didn't really GO anywhere but school! It stayed in service until they sold the car, though, maybe in 1996? It impressed all my friends in high school, anyway.

I have a vague recollection that calling a tow truck on it cost my dad like $5, and the call quality was awful. Pay phones were much better!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:55 AM on January 22, 2015

Funny that the way you knew someone was calling if you weren't in the car is that the car started honking seemingly out of nowhere, much like factory alarms these days. I can't understand how that was considered in any way acceptable.

That this hasn't been used in a period tv show/movie as a running joke seems like a missed opportunity.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 6:00 AM on January 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

It would be interesting to get a list of the base stations for this. Judging from the map on the first page, many seem to be cities (and thus I'm guessing served from Bell's main office in each major city), but some appear to be out in more rural areas. This is also close to, but slightly earlier than, the deployment of major microwave links, so it's not clear how well-developed Bell's network of repeater sites was at the time.

Honking the horn when you got a call must have been just the funniest thing.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:15 AM on January 22, 2015

Steven Wright: "I have an answering machine on my car phone. It says, 'I'm home right now. Please leave a message, and I'll get back to you when I go out.'" Hilarious at the time, sigh.
posted by Melismata at 6:16 AM on January 22, 2015 [9 favorites]

/pardon derail:

haha, nice! Juffo and I were speaking/lamenting about this only a week or two ago - there are at least 2 different companies currently offering dynatac styled bricks for halfway decent prices. bluetooth-only headset ones, so you still have to carry your actual phone in your bag, but also ones that can do GSM. sadly, they don't look quite right - rather slimmer/lighter than the ?8000? Zack Morris used (although I think there was a progression through the series, not always the same model.)

there was also a cute one-off retrofit someone did a couple years ago, which instead of doing the obvious/lazy ripping out the guts of an old candybar or flipphone, kept the original factory keyboard of the brick and put some small GSM hardware and an OLED inside. really cool, and yet I still felt selfishly disappointed becaused they used a newer slim brick instead of the incomparable Zack Morris icon.

//more on-topic:

not sure if it counts, but police had pre-MTS radiotelephones in the 1930s and possibly even 20s - paging Juffo to the Juffo-phone, Juffo to the Juffo-phone. I think he knows quite a lot more about what sort of networks they were using.

not sure if anyone offers old analog AMPS anymore, which is probably a good thing because I think he'd had some halfway serious plan to install one of those boat-anchor Motorola trunk radiators.
posted by dorian at 6:30 AM on January 22, 2015

Stop listening in on my conversations at home! Seriously, I was just talking w/my roommate last night about the history of the cell phone and was reading the wikipedia entry about this very topic!

It amazes me that research on this started back in the 40s, and even up to, IIRC, the 70s, they still sucked up so much battery juice that the cars had to be running so the phone could be powered. 30-40 years later here we are with portable phones that are way more powerful than the super computers in those days...

And mostly, we look at The Facebook.
posted by symbioid at 6:31 AM on January 22, 2015

The UK's pre-cellular mobile phone system is briefly detailed here. Basically, nothing much happened until they built the Post Office Tower, which acted as a base station to cover London...

Early versions relied on the user finding a free channel before making a call, and it was trivial to trick the radio into parking itself on a busy channel and listening in. There being no encryption of any of this, anybody with a scanner that covered 160 MHz could hear the lot anyway (and as it was a very expensive system used by the rich and privileged, the conversations were reputedly often most entertaining. And, of course, illegal to monitor. So nobody did, especially not the young Devonian who has always strictly adhered to the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949, as amended, and subsequent replacement Acts).
posted by Devonian at 6:57 AM on January 22, 2015 [9 favorites]

I was just joking, but apparently it is WFB!

The photo is by Jill Krementz, probably from her book Writers and their Familiars. The dog's name is Rowley.

There are more Krementz dog photos here: Stephen King and Marlowe, Amy Tan and Bubba Zo, Donna Tartt and Pongo, Kurt Vonnegut and Pumpkin, P.G. Wodehouse and Jed, etc.
English Cocker: Old and Blind

With what painful deliberation he comes down the stair,
At the edge of each step one paw suspended in air,
And distrust. Does he thus stand on a final edge
Of the world? Sometimes he stands thus, and will not budge,

With a choking soft whimper, while monstrous blackness is whirled
Inside his head, and outside too, the world
Whirling in blind vertigo. But if your hand
Merely touches his head, old faith comes flooding back—and

The paw descends. His trust is infinite
In you, who are, in his eternal night,
Only a frail scent subject to the whim
Of wind, or only a hand held close to him

With a dog biscuit, or, in a sudden burst
Of temper, the force that jerks that goddamned, accurst
Little brute off your bed. But remember how you last saw
Him hesitate in his whirling dark, one paw

Suspended above the abyss at the edge of the stair,
And remember that musical whimper, and how, then aware
Of a sudden sweet heart-stab, you knew in him
The kinship of all flesh defined by a halting paradigm.
posted by zamboni at 6:57 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

symbioid - in analogue days, both pre-cellular and afterwards, the power consumption wasn't really a factor of the smarts of the electronics, although the tube radios did take a lot more than their transistorised replacements. Mostly, you needed the extra power because base stations were a lot further apart and you just needed more ooomph to reach them. Basic physics, paired with basic economics: you couldn't make it a mass-market product because you couldn't build the capacity to support that, so the trade-off between infrastructure and end-device costs was shifted considerably towards the end device.

That said, once everything went digital the rules did change quite dramatically. You can add a lot of gain through throwing tons of computer power into the receiver, which lets you cut down on the power-hungry transmitter (techniques first evolved, at least in public, so that NASA's Deep Space Network could keep in touch with the 70s-era Voyagers) and once Moore's Law made digital signal processor chips small, cheap and power-frugal enough to fit to handsets and base stations things like battery life, subscriber and channel capacity improved with a ka-pow.

(wanders off up the spectrum, singing filk about Claude Shannon)
posted by Devonian at 7:14 AM on January 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

When I was young I recall seeing a photo of Shaft-era Isaac Hayes showing off his new car-phone.
posted by ovvl at 8:44 AM on January 22, 2015

I'm curious about the technical details of how these things connected to the phone system. My ham radio license is getting a little rusty - were these car phones basically doing a "phone patch"? Could you actually receive calls on them?
posted by dukes909 at 12:40 PM on January 22, 2015

They connected to a network of base stations that were connected (initially through operators, later directly) to the standard telephone system. Same idea as a ham phone patch, but they only did that job. Early ones were push-to-talk, later ones full duplex.

They all received calls too. An incoming call triggered a set of pulses that advanced what was basically a rotating switch in the receiver - if the pulses matched the programming of the switch, the set sounded some kind of ringer or electronic annunciator to alert the driver. That was a development of a system invented in the late 1800s for railroad signalling. There were (I think) only five digit places, so that system was very limited in the number of subscribers it could cope with. Later versions used electronic rather than electromechanical signalling, and I'm hazy about how different regions interacted. I know different sets of channels were associated with different areas, but how incoming calls from the telephone system were routed... pass. All the details are probably in the original link, which is capacious.
posted by Devonian at 1:31 PM on January 22, 2015

For anyone one else briefly puzzled, this post refers to "zero G", in contrast to the 3G and 4G phone networks we use now. Rather than "Oh G", as in "original gangster".

Which seemed like a peculiar way of referring to old phones even if, by some readings, it still sort of made sense.
posted by Dext at 2:32 PM on January 22, 2015

Here's an old story about car phone oneupsmanship from the late 1950's.
posted by mono blanco at 3:40 PM on January 22, 2015

A friend's dad got one of those over the shoulder cell phones back in the late '80s, the only thing I could think to say when he called to try and act cool was "Look out for that school bus!"
posted by Sphinx at 5:51 PM on January 22, 2015

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