My profile of Marty Cooper, maker of the first ever cell-phone call, for the San Diego Social Entrepreneurship Forum.
Marty Cooper, Co-founder, Dyna LLC
On April 3, 1973, standing on Sixth Avenue in New York City, Marty Cooper held up a prototype telephone to his ear and placed the first cellular call in history. At the time, he was heading systems operations for Motorola’s communications division, and he knew there was a fundamental problem with standard “land line” telephones: they were connected to places, not to people. “We changed the concept of the phone call”, Marty says. “Today if you place a call and someone other than the intended recipient picks it up, you are surprised. Previously, that was the norm – because calls were made to places, not people.”
With that phone call, Marty and Motorola catalyzed a boom in cell phone technology, and, so, a revolution in personal productivity that forced enormous cultural change. The difference between place and person was, it turned out, profound. “We have always lived in a mobile culture but our phones trapped us to our desks,” Marty says. “After 1973, we could be on the move while on the telephone, not sitting around waiting for a call. As a result, productivity leaps. GNP skyrockets. Organizational structures change.”
That wasn’t the plan per se. In fact, Marty says he never planned anything in his life apart from wanting to be an engineer. As a child, he remembers watching older boys using a lens to burn a piece of paper through sunlight. It astonished him. Attempting to replicate it with a piece of glass, Marty failed – an early lesson in the risk inherent to experimentation. But he remained obsessed with taking things apart to see how they worked. So when it came time to leave grammar school, Marty chose trade school. It was “the smartest thing I ever did. Everyone’s talking about diversity in education these days, about the value of a multidisciplinary education. Going to trade school gave me the opportunity to work in every type of shop, which was invaluable.”
Marty’s life has been self-organized. And self-organization, he believes, is going to describe the future of work, of society, of democracy itself. Self-organizing flows naturally from the re-orientation that happens when we shift from place to person. The current trend that most encapsulates this reorientation is social networking, which is based on simple frameworks that enable self-organizing systems for creativity. There is a huge business opportunity here for the companies that can move social networking into the enterprise, and that’s an area where Marty is increasingly beginning to focus his time.
What else is left to achieve for a former naval officer who became head of Research & Development at Motorola, set off the cell phone revolution, and described a phenomenon of radio spectrum usage that is now called “Cooper’s Law”? “The most important thing in life”, Marty responds, “is ideas. I play tennis, I ski, but these are just hobbies. The excitement that comes from thinking about something new is unbeatable. Ideas make me shiver.”
Many thanks to Keith Hammonds for editorial input.
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