Handheld telephones

In the early 1980s, mobile telephony meant telephones that were mounted in cars; they were “portable”, though in practice that meant they had to be transported or at best carried in a sturdy shoulder bag. The big question was when the weight could be reduced enough that they could be held in one hand.

This race was won by Motorola. The first handheld mobile phone launched commercially was the company’s DynaTAC 8000X (DynaTAC stands for Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) on March 6, 1983. It was the result of 10 years of work after the first call was made using an early prototype on April 3, 1973: that was when Martin Cooper, head of development at Motorola, wandering the streets of New York, rang Joel Engel, a counterpart at their competitor Bell Labs – which was then using the IMTS standard.

When Motorola was eventually able to launch the model, its dimensions were 25.5 cm by 4.5 cm by 9 cm, not counting the aerial; it weighed just under 800 grams; the battery provided 30 minutes of talk time and took 10 hours to recharge. The price was high at $3,995, but thousands of customers still put themselves on the waiting list after its approval by the FCC in September 1983.

In 1984, Nokia launched a “portable” NMT telephone called the Mobira Talkman. This weighed 4.8 kg; it had 24 hours of stand-by time and up to an hour of talk time. The price was about one-third the price of a car but it was a success from day one, with 12,000 sold by the end of the first year.


Ever since Lars Magnus’s day, Ericsson had focused on fixed telephone networks and their exchanges. It had also always done most of its business with operators, usually state telecom agencies. In this new world, the subscribers themselves bought their mobile phones, which meant Ericsson had to take a new approach to business.

One step towards the consumer market was taken in 1981 when Lundqvist decided that the then SRA was going to begin to manufacture mobile terminals at the factory in Gävle it had acquired from Sonab. The background was the Saudi Arabian order, which included 8,000 mobile terminals for NMT. Ulf J. Johansson says: “That was a large volume in those days but unfortunately we ran into major quality problems in our production in Gävle.”

Also in 1981, Mats Ljunggren returned from a trip to the US with a prototype of Motorola’s coming DynaTAC: “Our reaction was ‘That’s impossible’. You have to admit that Motorola had really made a lot of progress where miniaturization was concerned.”

The ability to supply mobile phones was also put to the test in ERA’s Vodafone deal in 1985. Jöran Hoff says: “We were unable to cope with producing the phones on Vodafone’s behalf and decided to use Mobira as a supplier. The Mobira people were not very comfortable with AMPS/TACS technology, so we set up a joint training project with them. I believe this had some significance for Nokia’s international ventures at this time.”

Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn



© Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Centre for Business History

Contact info/About the site