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30 years ago today, the first commercial UK 'mobile' phone call was made

It was 1 Jan 1985 ...

Dom Joly

The first mobile phone calls were made on Cellnet and Vodafone 30 years ago today.

The companies we know as Vodafone and O2 today were Racal-Vodafone and Securicor-Cellnet back then, phones were the size of a small suitcase and only did voice. They didn’t even let you assign names to the numbers in the phonebook.

The two companies had spent the months up to the 1 January launch deadline fighting for cell sites and testing coverage, particularly in London. There was no hint of site-sharing. The services used analogue TACS (Total Access Control System), and later ETACS (Enhanced), as more frequencies became necessary. This wasn’t known as 1G but was the predecessor to GSM. All phones ran at 900MHz and up to 2.8W.

Phones were big and heavy - as is pointed out in this video.

Youtube Video

It wasn’t the first mobile system in the UK, there was a Carphone Radio service called Band 3, but that was push-to-talk and all calls had to go through an operator. Calls were limited as was the number of users. You had to go on a list and wait for a subscriber to close an account before you could buy one.

It wasn’t even the first cellular service, the Nordics had NMT as early as 1981 and AT&T had launched AMPs in Chicago in 1983, but the UK launch was massively significant, although even Vodafone and Cellnet didn’t realise it at the time.

The trophy for making the first call goes to Vodafone's Michael Harrison, the son of former Vodafone Chairman Sir Ernest Harrison, who was the first to test the system, calling his father at midnight on 1 January, 1985.

Michael Harrison secretly left his family’s New Year’s Eve party at their home in Surrey in the UK to surprise his father, calling him from London’s Parliament Square. Harrison made the historic call from one of the first mobile devices – a Transportable Vodafone VT1, which weighed 11lb (5kg) and had around 30 minutes of talk time. Harrison recalls that the line was crystal clear, although the excited shouting of New Year’s Eve revellers in London created considerable background noise.

As Sir Ernest Harrison answered the phone, Michael said: “Hi Dad. It’s Mike. This is the first-ever call made on a UK commercial mobile network”. Which isn’t quite “one small step” but is better than, “Watson come here I want to see you".

The official press launch was held days later at St Katherine’s Dock in London where Vodafone had hired comedian Ernie Wise make the first public mobile phone call. Wise brought the same Transportable device to St Katherine’s Dock in London in a 19th century mail coach, using one of the oldest forms of communications – sending a letter – to highlight the speed and convenience of these new mobile phones.

Ernie Wise’s call was received at the original Vodafone headquarters, where a handful of employees were based in an office above an Indian restaurant in Newbury, Berkshire.

Heavy and cumbersome, the first generation of mobile phones were sold in the UK from 1984 – before the first products were even available and before the network was officially live. Such was the demand for a fully portable, cellular phone that more than 2,000 orders had been taken by the Vodafone sales team before Michael Harrison made his call from Parliament Square. By the end of 1985, over 12,000 devices had been sold.

Vodafone is asking people to share their memories of getting their first mobile phone and making their first mobile call, using the hashtags #myfirstmobile and #30yearsVodafone.

Youtube Video

2,000 orders for a gadget with no Angry Birds? Tell that to the kids today and they won't believe you. ®

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