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Can you hear me now? Cellphone turns 40

April 3, 2013 at 3:33 PM ET

Video: From the giant brick-like phones of the past to the sleeker touchscreens we’re accustomed to today, the cell phone has undergone a huge evolution both in terms of style and popularity. NBC’s Kevin Tibbles reports.

Forty years ago, Martin Cooper, a VP at Motorola, made history by placing the very first cellphone call. Appropriately enough, he called his rival at AT&T's Bell Labs.

Thirty-three years later, a slightly more theatrical Steve Jobs dialed a Starbucks cafe in San Francisco to order 4,000 lattes, making the first public phone call from the very first iPhone while a hushed auditorium filled with journalists watched.

In between those prank calls, the cellphone morphed from a chunky plastic giant to a slender glass slab that doubles up as a computer and camera.

SLIDESHOW: See the cellphone's evolution over the years.

The granddaddy of all cellphones was the DynaTac 8000X — the phone Motorola's Cooper used to rib his rival. It went on sale in 1984 and cost almost $4,000. The DynaTak, short for Dynamic Total Area Coverage," had an LED display and took 10 hours to charge. You can still buy one on eBay.

"Zack" (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) shows off his rockin' portable phone to "Screech" on "Saved by the Bell."
NBC / NBC via Getty Images
"Zack" (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) shows off his rockin' portable phone to "Screech" on "Saved by the Bell."

The first flip phone was also Motorola's, called the MicroTac. When the company announced it in 1989, the AP described it as "about as thick as a fat wallet at the earpiece while tapering down to half the thickness of a deck of cards at the mouthpiece."

That famously annoying Nokia ringtone? The Nokia 2110 was the first to trill a digitized version of the Grand Vals tune, originally composed for a guitar in 1902.

Motorola's StarTac was the first clamshell phone and quickly became popular following it's 1996 launch. It was also the earliest camera phone, though it wasn't sold that way. Philippe Kahn hacked his StarTac, rigged it up to a Casio digital camera and his computer. When his daughter was born on June 11, 1997, he snapped a photo in the maternity ward, uploaded it to a website and emailed his friends the link.

The first commercial camera phones weren't sold until 2000, by J-phone (now SoftBank) in Japan. In the US, around 2002, Sony Ericsson's T68i with its clip-on camera and the Sanyo 5300 were among the earliest photo phones to go on sale.

Somewhere along the line, personal phones hit a weird patch. Nokia sold a "lipstick phone" that you had to pull apart to make calls. Motorola's early swivel phone, the V70, looked like a magnifying glass. The top slab rotated 180 degrees outward to show off a keyboard. And then there was Nokia's 7600, a square phone with tapered ends and buttons arranged around the edges of a central screen.

Which may have been why Motorola's slender, square Razr series, first launched in 2004, was such a runaway hit and sold 50 million phones in the first two years since its launch.

As personal smartphones grew through awkward adolescence, the chunkier but more powerful PDAs were being let loose into the wild. BlackBerry's 5810, which went on sale in 2002, was the very first BlackBerry device to get a cellular connection. The Palm TreoW, also a pocket assistant, was the first phone to run a Windows mobile operating system. Together with Nokia's brick-y 9000 series, these phones started to smudge the line between computer and phone.

And then in 2007, the iPhone took everyone by surprise. "...an iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator. Are you getting it?" a smug Steve Jobs asked the assembled crowd at Moscone Theater in San Francisco. "These are not three separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it, iPhone. Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone… and here it is."

Since then, flat, skinny smartphones from Nokia and Samsung and HTC (which launched the first 4G phone, along with Sprint) have reconfigured our expectations of a smartphone, and of tablets and phablets. Today's smartphones are barely the same species as the first cordless DynaTak. But even more exciting innovations, like phones that maybe wrap around our wrist and read our feelings from our voice are right around the corner.

SLIDESHOW: See the cellphone's evolution over the years.

Nidhi Subbaramanispart smartphone. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

Video: July 7, 1988 - NBC's Tom Brokaw and Douglas Kiker report on the new found popularity of cellular car and "street" phones.



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