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History of the Car Phone

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Early German Car Phone in a museum
Early German Car Phone
Photo: Ben Franske

It’s hard to think of life before cell phones. The communication options they provide, as well as entertainment and navigation, are key to our modern lives. Before phones could live in our pockets, however, inventors developed car phones to ride along with us in vehicles.

The beginning – 1910

According to the team at Wired, the first car phone wasn’t invented by a huge corporation, but by a retired telecommunications executive looking for a fun retirement project. Lars Magnus Ericsson, the founder of the Ericsson telephone and radio company, teamed up with his wife Hilda in 1910 to build a rather unwieldy-yet-functional phone on the go.

The Ericssons would pull over next to roadside telephone lines when they needed to make a call, and Hilda would get out and use two long rods to connect their handset to the phone lines. Once she hooked the lines just right, Lars could make a call after connecting to an area operator. It didn’t work when the car was in motion, but we guess that if there was an emergency you could use it to call for help.


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America’s first – 1920

While Wired says that Lars Magnus Ericsson was the first inventor of the car phone, America’s Smithsonian says the honor should go to Philadelphia resident W. W. Macfarlane. We think it’s more of a gray area. While Ericsson’s phone used real phone lines, the Macfarlane version was more like a two-way radio that happened to use a phone as the main speaking/listening device. The inventor mounted three pieces of stovepipe to a piece of wood that he carried to transmit and receive a signal, using the connection to talk to his wife in their garage as he drove down the road. How the signal worked is a bit of a mystery, however. While The Electrical Experimenter magazine had eyewitness accounts from a photographer, chauffeur, and journalist, they received no details about how a 12-pound box carried by the inventor and connected to the apparatus contributed to the operation.

Building popularity – 1940s and 1950s

Car phones remained a quirky invention until the first cell phone towers were developed and launched in America during the 1940s and 1950s. Like many new products, the first customers of these car phones were the rich and famous, with luxury cars getting the early models. According to Techwalla, the car phone first entered the public eye when Humphrey Bogart’s character in 1954’s Sabrina got work done in the back of a limo with his phone and portable Dictaphone.

Widespread service – 1970s

In the 1970s, companies like Autoradiopuhelin and the Car Radiophone network brought car phones to more people. Techwalla reports that now the industry refers to this era as the time of Zero G service, because while drivers could make calls, they couldn’t carry the phones outside of a vehicle. The devices relied on car batteries to supply power and operate the signal.


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Death of a wonder – 1980s and 1990s

Nordic Mobile Telephone launched the first 1G phone in 1982, and over the years cell phones pushed car phones into oblivion. After all, why install a telephone in your car when you could lug around a big brick in your purse or suitcase instead? The death knell for the car phone really sounded in the late 1990s, when digital service and mass production made personal cell phones more available to the middle class.

The bulky nature of car phones might make us laugh as we hold our slim smartphones, but without car phones, we wouldn’t realize that we could even think of making calls on the go. It’s good to recognize how far we’ve come.

History Sources: Techwalla, Smithsonian.com, Wired