In September 1958, 20-year-old Östen Mäkitalo boarded the train in Haparanda in Sweden’s far north to begin his long journey to Stockholm. He had grown up in Koutojärvi, 60 kilometers further north, and spent the past three years boarding in Haparanda while completing high school. Having finished his national military service, he had a place at the Royal Institute of Technology waiting for him in Stockholm.
Mäkitalo had already visited Stockholm once before, when he took part in the Swedish school athletics championships. He was a long jumper with a personal record of 702 centimeters. “But I tried too hard. I qualified for the finals and got through to the last three rounds. Then I had to abandon caution and give it everything I had, which I did, but then my runup didn’t work anymore. My jumps were long ones but every time I just overstepped the line, so no medal for me.”
At the institute, Mäkitalo majored in electrical engineering. He was more than well prepared: at the age of six, he had already built an electromagnet. Having found some lacquered copper wire, almost certainly left by soldiers stationed in Koutojärvi during the war, he wound it round a nail and connected the wire to a battery. “I connected all sorts of things to batteries or the electric sockets to see what happened. My parents were worried and they had reason to be, because every time they went out, I plugged things into the power socket. Usually there was a short-circuit and a fuse blew.”
A radio salesman who came knocking at the door one day also left an indelible mark. His parents were not interested but Mäkitalo set off after the salesman and persuaded him to return. When he walked away from the cottage for the second time, the salesman left a Radiola radio on the kitchen table. Mäkitalo still has it.
“Another important discovery was one I made in the school darkroom, where we developed films and printed pictures. I happened to spill most of the developer, but thought that if I diluted what was left with water and left the film to develop for longer, it might work. It did, and that taught me that it was worth trying to find new ways of doing things.
“I find it difficult to abandon an idea before it has been shown not to work,” says Mäkitalo.
THE GREAT MOBILE INQUIRY
In the middle of the 1960s, Televerket (the National Swedish Telecommunications Agency) faced an important strategic choice. What was to be the next step in mobile telephony? Mäkitalo, hired by Ragnar Berglund and now a young engineer at Televerket, was one of those thinking about this question.
“There wasn’t a lot of interest outside our [radio] division, and mobile telephony was not considered important in comparison with the fixed network. But for us in the radio division, it was vital; we could see that the current technology was leading nowhere. At the same time, we realized that technology in the pipeline, particularly in integrated circuits, was going to change things fundamentally,” Mäkitalo recalls.
The mood of the time was in tune with the radio group. The people of the 1960s had great faith in the future: engineers enjoyed high status, technology was continually celebrating new triumphs, Swedish industry was successful and Sweden was a modern country. Soviet Russia and the US sent the first men into space, television had seriously begun to conquer Swedish living rooms and color television was on the horizon. A new social class – the young – was emerging, and establishing its own culture. Everybody had opinions about the new, avant-garde music represented by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others.
Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn
Östen Mäkitalo, long-jumper
Östen Mäkitalo, technologist