The USA Had A Working Mobile Phone Network In The 1940s

February 2, 2023 People's Tonight 138 views

The mobile was in use over half a century before Snake II.

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

An old telephone, with a mysterious spin dial nobody under 35 can use.

Phone1The mobile looked a lot like a normal telephone. Image credit: 7713 Photography/

An advert for mobile phones recorded in the 1940s has recently been unearthed by Open Culture. It shows a working mobile phone, long before the iPhone or the 80s Wall Street guy brick.

The advert begins by attempting to explain the benefits of being able to communicate while on the move.

“Here comes a trailer truck out on the open highway miles from the nearest town,” the narrator says, focusing on selling the phones to businesses. “Let’s say important for someone to get in touch with the drivers of this outfit. How can it be done?”

The two colleagues then demonstrate a miracle of modern technology, while also having a fairly mundane conversation about making a pickup at a local depot, which really could have been an email. The advert goes on to provide another example of how useful it is to be able to talk to someone when your car breaks down.

“This is mobile telephone service. In this service conversations travel part way by radio part way by telephone lines,” the announcer explains.

“In order to reach vehicles traveling the highways between cities, a number of transmitting and receiving stations connected to telephone lines are spaced at intervals along the highway so that one will always be in range of the moving vehicle. The antennas are placed preferably on high ground because the high frequency waves are limited in distance to the line of sight.”

The first call made through the system happened on October 2, 1946, through a Motorola Car Radiotelephone. The service, operated by Bell Telephone Company, quickly hit capacity due to the small number of radio frequencies available to it. It was also prone to interference, meaning you might not end up talking to the same person you began the conversation with further down the highway.

“Although the signal level on a channel may be poor beyond 25 miles [40 kilometers],” a paper on the Bell system in 1979 explained, “it is still high enough to interfere significantly with other mobile communications on the same frequency within 60 to 100 miles [100 to 160 kilometers] of the land transmitter.”

The system endured into the 1980s, before being replaced by cellular service. But for a good few decades, people were able to enjoy the futuristic inconvenience of your boss being able to get a hold of you while you are on the highway, and the retro joy of having that call placed through an operator.