Revolutionary Objects: The Surprising Origin of the Cell Phone

The technology has its roots in 1950s Soviet Russia.
By Malcolm Harris,

It's easy to take the objects around us for granted, to assume we know how they came to be, and to forget the extraordinary roots of ordinary things. Stories of invention are often hard to verify because every new idea stands on the shoulders of older ones and they make for great urban legends. Adding to the trouble, some of the true tales are too good to be believed, while others are so counterintuitive as to make you reach for your Snopes. But the origin stories of simple household objects sitting in plain sight can tell us more about the past (and the present) than we might imagine. Here are a few unlikely lessons from handy things.

There is no better symbol of late-20th-century capitalism than the stock trader with the bulky cell phone, his time so valuable that he has to walk around with a big old antennaed brick to his ear. How strange, then, that this technology has its roots in 1950s Soviet Russia. Detailed Soviet records are hard to find, but archival material from Soviet media and industry reports suggests that the cell phone was largely a communist invention.

Leonid Kupriyanovich was a Moscow engineer, born in 1929, just as what had been a feudal empire raced into modernity at hitherto unseen speeds. As a young man, Kupriyanovich tackled a typically Soviet problem: how to share. According to the Soviet wire service ANP, Kupriyanovich began developing radiotelephones that shared a common base station, based on the research of his countryman Dmitry V. Ageev. (Ageev's work set the foundation for Code Division Multiple Access cellular networks, still in use.) It was a brilliant move, and now we call those shared base stations cell towers. The 1961 Soviet cell phone fit in the palm of the hand and weighed half as much as today's iPhone.

The Soviet bureaucracy (in a characteristic move) prioritized the use of early cell-phone research for the development of car phones for the Soviet upper ranks. Still, according to the 2014 Russia Telecom and Broadcasting Equipment Producers Directory, Kupriyanovich's "Altay" radio-based cell network served emergency-service personnel and remained in popular use long after the fall of the U.S.S.R.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

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