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Martin Cooper, “Father of the Cell Phone”: “If I had paid attention, I would never have started”

I’m certain that all the things I needed to know were told to me before I invented the cell phone. I’m also sure that I didn’t listen well enough. I’m lucky that I ignored those that told me how hard it is to do things differently, to be creative. If I had paid attention, I […]

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I’m certain that all the things I needed to know were told to me before I invented the cell phone. I’m also sure that I didn’t listen well enough. I’m lucky that I ignored those that told me how hard it is to do things differently, to be creative. If I had paid attention, I would never have started.


As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Cooper.

Martin Cooper is an engineer, inventor, entrepreneur, and futurist. He is known as the “father of the cell phone.” He led the creation of the world’s first cell phone at Motorola — and made the first public call on it. Over nearly three decades at Motorola, Cooper contributed to the development of pagers, two-way radio dispatch systems, quartz crystal manufacture, and more.

A serial entrepreneur, he and his wife, Arlene Harris, have co founded numerous wireless technology companies. This includes Cellular Business Systems, SOS Wireless Communications, GreatCall, and ArrayComm. Cooper is currently chairman of Dyna LLC and a member of the FCC’s Technological Advisory Council. He was the first to observe the Law of Spectrum Capacity, which became known as Cooper’s Law.

In 2013, Cooper became a member of the National Academy of Engineering from whom he received the Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering. He was awarded the Marconi Prize “for being a wireless visionary who reshaped the concept of mobile communication.” He has been inducted into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame and Wireless History Foundation’s Wireless Hall of Fame. The Radio Club of America awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. He is a lifetime member of the IEEE, was president of its Vehicular Technology Society and received its Centennial Medal. In 2007, Time magazine named him one of the “100 Best Inventors in History.” He is a Prince of Asturias Laureate.

Cooper grew up in Chicago, the son of Ukrainian immigrants. He attended Crane Technical High School and the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he is a Life Trustee. He served in the US Navy as a submarine officer during the Korean Conflict.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Martin! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood back story”?

My folks emigrated separately to Canada from Russia (now the Ukraine), met and worked together the rest of their lives. I was alone a lot and used my imagination to compensate for that. I always knew I was going to become an engineer from my earliest recollections. I took things apart and sometimes even managed to get them working again. I attended a technical high school which offered me a range of practical skills without sacrificing the liberal arts. I was fortunate to get my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) on whose Board of Trustees I now serve. IIT is a premier university that adds an understanding of entrepreneurship to a demanding engineering curriculum.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do not fear failure; reach out”, Paul Galvin, founder of Motorola. Galvin knew, from experience, that changing the way people use technology always involves risk, and that some failures are inevitable in the process of creating breakthrough products and services. Motorola practiced that philosophy and stood by me when I reached too far and stumbled. The company amply rewarded me when I was right.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, on the importance of individual contribution, teamwork, and efficiency in solving the worlds big problems. Although some of Ayn Rand’s concepts are extreme, the idea that exceptional people can collaborate to solve big problems and that bureaucracy should not be allowed to hamper that process has served me well. There are few thrills greater than assembling a team of smart doers and watching them perform miracles.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

I do not believe in the “ah ha” moment. Hard problems are solved by experience, persistent, and demanding people. The catalyst for me was understanding that people are inherently, naturally mobile. The monopoly phone company in the mid-1900s tried to convince our government that car telephones were the solution to that need for mobility. We, at Motorola, knew the answer to mobility was the handheld portable cell phone, so I invented one and put together a team that built it. It took over 10 years of battling the largest company in the world, but Motorola prevailed and people all over the world have benefited.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

I learned early that good ideas need to make people’s lives better if they are to grow into successful businesses. It’s too easy for an inventor or entrepreneur to fall in love with her or his idea instead of understanding how technology improves lives. The translation of a good idea also requires repeatedly attacking problems and challenges, without regard to risk, and succeeding often enough to inspire the confidence of investors or management.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

Researching is easy; all the information in the world is on the Internet, on store shelves and show rooms. Persuading investors and management that a solution will scale into a successful product is the hard part.

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

I learn from everyone with whom I’m fortunate enough to connect. I have had several important role models. Guglielmo Marconi was one. People like Marconi and Paul Galvin were inspirational to me because they had countless failures on their paths to create important companies, but they persisted because they had the courage to stick with convictions that were based upon genuine solutions that benefited people.

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

It took the better part of my book, Cutting the Cord: How the Cell Phone Has Transformed Humanity, to describe how the cell phone moved from an idea to the store shelves. Patents, sourcing, and distribution are all necessary, but so are overcoming regulatory, financial, and environmental issues. Picking the right product, in all its fine detail, identifying the customer, and knowing how to market it are all important.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Yes, I have made many mistakes but have been lucky enough to survive them. Some are mentioned in Cutting the Cord. But I don’t recall any of them being “funny” at the time they happened.

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

It took ten years from my invention of the cell phone till the first commercial version, and another ten years or so for recognition of my belief that someday, everyone would have one. No tipping point; just patience. The most important drive in my life is learning and growing. Every new way of looking at the old things, every new idea that evolves in my mind, each unique piece of information that fits in the jigsaw puzzle of my view of life thrills me and fulfills me. I become a different and, I hope, better person as the holes in the puzzle fill.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I’m certain that all the things I needed to know were told to me before I invented the cell phone. I’m also sure that I didn’t listen well enough. I’m lucky that I ignored those that told me how hard it is to do things differently, to be creative. If I had paid attention, I would never have started.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

The first step is to understand why humanity will benefit from the product. The second is to understand the technological basis (this may take the better part of a lifetime). Finally, figure out how to market the product (that, too can take a lot of time and study).

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

If consultants were smart enough to succeed in bringing other people’s ideas to market, they would not be wasting their time consulting; they would be executing their own ideas. I do not believe in shortcuts. It takes hard work and experience to bring an idea to fruition. When people understand themselves well enough to know what they don’t know they can seek collaborators to fill those gaps. Unfortunately, collaborators that don’t have skin in the game are not often reliable.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Venture capital is a last resort. If a startup can bootstrap, that is the way to go.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I serve on a government advisory committee, a university board of trustees, and in other voluntary roles. I advise two startup companies. My book, Cutting the Cord, outlines my vision for reduction of poverty and disease and my proposals for revolutionizing education. I speak to youngsters from elementary school to college in the hope that I can inspire them to reach out, to seek to change the world. Education is my highest priority. The future of society depends on a scientifically and culturally literate populace. It is a failure of our system of education that we have so far to go to reach that objective.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I am an advocate of a scientific and cooperative approach to solving the world’s problems. Many organizations already exist that aim to do that. We need the politicians to pay more attention to science. But I keep coming back to an educational process that encourages people to think for themselves and to be comfortable in challenging conventional yet irrational ideas.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I fear that a single conversation with a big name can have little impact. I have been lucky enough to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, the last two kings of Spain, and numerous other political and corporate leaders. They are all doing their best to contribute to their vision of a better world. They need a more educated and enlightened populace to make that happen. None of them were very interested in my ideas; they were all busy executing on their own agendas. Specifically, it would be interesting to express my views on climate change to the U.S. President, but he already has many advisors on this issue. On the other hand, it would be exciting to be privileged to have a continuing relationship with a person in power in which ideas were proposed and evolved. I’m glad to be surrounded by bright people who are smarter than I am and with whom I can conduct exactly these kinds of collaborations.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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