About “Cutting the Cord” – Questions and Answers with Martin Cooper

Marty with his cell phones
Spread the love

Martin Cooper, father of the cell phone, recently released the book, Cutting the Cord, which is a remarkable book written by a special person.  Cooper’s belief that humanity needs to be part of technology permeates the book, making it accessible and intriguing. This story begins with Cooper’s family in the Ukraine and moves through settling in Chicago, time in the Navy, and his many years working for Motorola and interacting with AT&T.  There are wonderful photos that enhance the story.  I found it remarkable in the way it is just technical enough to interest engineers and scientists while at the same time having a “just plain folks quality” that I found personally engaging.  Given the role of cell phone in our lives today, I would think this is a book that would appeal to almost anyone who is interested in how we got here.

The publication of Cutting the Cord has been celebrated by the National Academy of Engineering and his alma mater, Illinois Tech, where both Cooper and his wife, Arlene received special honors.  Videos within the presentation were a collage of events in “Marty’s” life showing the steps leading toward the cell phone we know today and what future advances that are possible and likely.  In this presentation, Emily, a current graduate student, quoted Cooper, “Humanity is an essential ingredient in technology”.  This is the core of the book and says so much about Cooper.

The book cover for “Cutting the Cord”

When I told Guy Genin about this book, he immediately purchased it and enjoyed it. We both wanted to learn more about Martin Cooper and his perspectives on life and technology, and on educating our children and ourselves to be successful and innovative. He kindly agreed to answer our questions. Please, read on. 

Barbara Keer : What inspired you to share your story?

Martin Cooper: There are more cell phones in the world today than people. The lives of most of the people on earth have been changed, and mostly improved, by the freedom and functionality provided by the handheld cell phone. But that revolution almost didn’t happen. If the Bell system had been allowed to execute their 1969 cellular plan, we would have been stuck with car phones for at least 10 to 20 years.

People don’t want to communicate with places or cars, they need to connect with people.

Most people in developed countries like ours have no idea about that the cell phone is solving the poverty problem in emerging countries, how the cell phone is revolutionizing health care, and how the future features of the cell phone will eclipse the past impact of the phone. I believed all these stories to be compelling and mostly untold. While at least three books could be written on these subjects, I simply did not have the time to do that (I’m 92 as I write this). I wanted the world to know the REAL story.

B.K.: How long did it take you to write the book?

Marty: The last version took three years.  I started 7 years ago with a collaborator but that didn’t work out. I took a break, started over on my own, and had a book in 2 years. There aren’t many colorful metaphors in the book, but I hope it’s not bad for an engineer and futurist.

Family in Russia

Guy Genin : Your parents were once illegal immigrants to the US, and their presence here contributed to you gaining access to the resources needed to transform the world. What are your thoughts today on efforts to control borders versus welcome immigrants?  Do immigrants play an important role in American innovation? How do innovation, diversity, and inclusion relate?

Marty: The American success story is largely a result of our country’s friendliness to immigrants. It’s a travesty that my folks and brother had to spend some years as illegals, but no one tried very hard to eject them once they got here, and it was relatively easy for them to become citizens. Without the population growth offered by immigration, our country will have trouble moving through the next phase in its growth. If we continue advances in productivity, I believe that robotics and other efficiency improvers will allow our shrinking population to still maintain improvements in lifestyle. But there will be a transition period during which population growth is essential (witness the initiative by the Chinese to encourage population growth after many years of aggressively discouraging it). Immigrants tend to appreciate and take advantage of the opportunities that our culture offers and often are the leading innovators at every level (have you noticed that the heads of Microsoft, Tesla, Google, and even Verizon were welcomed from other countries).

The lack of diversity and inclusion is inefficient. Suppressing women, as an example, deprives us of the creative input of half our population. As important is this kind of suppression, including that involving color and religion, deprives us of valuable viewpoints in creation of laws, and of diversity in products (consider that most products designed to be used by women are designed by men).

Innovation usually involves risk-taking. One doesn’t need to be an immigrant to be a risk-taker, but the very act of immigration attracts risk-takers.

G. G. :When you started working at Motorola, the transistor was only 7 years old. You identified its value early on and made tremendous use of it. What do you view as the transistors of 2021- what products in the last 7 years do you see changing the world?

Marty: Artificial intelligence will revolutionize transportation (we’re 10 years away from self-driving cars but that will cause a huge revolution) and will improve efficiency in many ways, often eliminating the need for low level labor. But it will take a generation or more to raise the level of education to balance the labor needs with the pool of labor.

The concept of game playing will be finally accommodated in the educational process; the entire teaching process will be redefined, including reimagining the role of the teacher. And we will finally realize that, for humans, communications of all kinds has to be wireless. People are fundamentally mobile.

G. G.: “Fail proudly” was the mission given you by an early mentor, but your career seems to have had little of that– so many of your setbacks have translated into success. Were there some memorable failures that did not make it into your book? What advice do you have for young engineers about turning failure into future success?

Marty: Yes, there were other failures. Failure is a fundamental part of innovation, of invent, of research. If someone is 100 % successful, she or he is not risking, is not truly innovating. My advice: keep learning; don’t be afraid to take chances.  (Editor’s note: Marty kindly shared his blog post about this, which we have attached at the end of this interview). My biggest failure was so huge I’m embarrassed to mention it other than that the concept I introduced was too far ahead of its time and depended on a rational commercial world…

Marty Cooper on a Submarine in 1953

G. G.: One of the major design tasks that you had was knocking down the number of transistors, for example in the IMTS supervisory unit. This was essential to the development of an all-digital unit. What was the process of eliminating parts?

Marty: Purely cleverness in circuit design. The transistors used in the supervisory unit cost more than $2 each. A modern transistor costs less than one hundred millionth of a dollar and takes close to zero space. A modern circuit designer doesn’t need to be clever. A brute force design may require a thousand extra transistors, which may add a few cents to product cost, or maybe zero because the transistors are part of the chip. For example (a poor one, for lack of time or cleverness) is a decision to count in binary, octal, or decimal, or perhaps to use an analog circuit mixed in with the digital.

Marty Cooper visits a school in Ireland

G. G.: A persistent myth about cell phones is that they produce enough RF energy to pop popcorn; the internet abounds with gag videos of this 21st-century version of your many breakfasts eating burnt Corn Flakes after the fire in your parents’ store. How early did these myths of cell phone-related glioblastoma arise? Were there safety concerns at Motorola?

Marty: Absolutely there were safety concerns back in the 1960s. Then, Motorola ran a study at the University of Miami where we exposed pigs, whose anatomy is very close to humans, to R.F radiation by strapping handheld two-way radios to their heads.  The pigs were slaughtered and examined after months of exposure seeking damaging effects.  There were none.  There have been thousands of studies since then, many of which I have examined. There is no evidence that non-ionizing radiation has any deleterious effect on humans.  The regulations for safety are very likely more conservative than they should be by hundreds of times, but there are no safety concerns that I am aware of.

G. G.: Ronald Reagan was so impressed when he tried out your phone that he called the FCC to endorse it. How important was it to have this endorsement in the early days of battling for the spectrum space that seemed back then to be such a limited commodity? How would this process have been different in the future you envision, where we abandon the auctions for this space?

Marty: The Reagan anecdote was a true and fun story but I am confident that the handheld phone system would have prevailed, simply because it was the right thing to do.  In the long-range future that I envision every transmission will use the minimum spectrum, minimum time, optimum technical protocol, etc., and there will be no need to assign exclusive use of any portion of the radio spectrum. Most human communication will be wireless and there will be plenty of spectrum.

Arlene Harris, Marty’s partner and love

G. G. : One of your themes in the book is projecting enthusiasm and potential to young, budding engineers and scientists. What advice do you have for teachers in this regard, and for the students themselves?

Marty:In order for the educational process to be successful it has to be interesting, engaging, and adaptive. (Editor’s note: Marty has blogged on this as well, and has kindly allowed us to share this. Please see his thoughts at the end of this interview).”

G. G.: The cell phone can be found all over the world, and has taken over banking not just in poor countries, but also in developing places like China. What do you view as the future of the cell phone in helping the poor develop out of poverty?

 Marty: The most important impact of the cellphone long-term is enhancing collaboration and making it more efficient.  Our society is extraordinarily inefficient in virtually everything we do.  The cellphone has the potential of eliminating many of these inefficiencies.  The opportunities are enormous (consider that when Einstein wanted to share his views on the theory of relativity, he would write a letter and get a response weeks later that would require still another letter.  That happens today in a matter of minutes). A better example is the horribly inefficient process of burning oil to produce heat. Our sun has produced huge amounts of energy for billions of years by simply 😁 fusing 2 hydrogen atoms to produce a helium atom and some energy.

Arlene & Marty Vail

Marty: Great to meet both of you, Barb and Guy.

B. K. and G. G.: Thank you, Marty.

Guy Genin co-directs the NSF Science and Technology Center for Engineering MechanoBiology at Washington University in St. Louis.

To order Cutting the Cord, visit your favorite local or online bookseller and request:

Cooper, M. Cutting the Cord. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021.

You can also find a list of places to order it on the website of the publisher, Simon and Schuster

Marty at Ocean Air

Marty’s Blog

Advice to Students of all Ages on Growing up and Learning

                                                       June 2021

When I was growing up, I was often asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’m certain that those who asked meant well, but I was not qualified then to answer that question intelligently, and I’m not sure I can answer it intelligently now. If “growing up” means that I’ve finished my education, that I know everything I need to know, that I will no longer be curious, and that I will not ever need to change my mind because I have all the answers, then I plan never to grow up.

While I know more than I did as a child and must have accumulated some wisdom, I continue my thirst for knowledge, ideas, and new experiences. The more I know, the more opportunities are available to me for my next career; more opportunities for being productive, for happiness, and for the fulfillment of my dreams. I don’t want to grow up if that means I will stop learning and cease having new perspectives and new ways of looking at everything. I treasure the realization that I was really stupid about a specific subject a year ago, and then I met someone smarter than I who taught me something, or better yet, I figured it out myself. 

Growing up need not have an endpoint where a person starts out as a child and at some specific age, or level of accomplishment, or goal achievement, graduates to the distinction of being “grown-up.” Growing up is a terrible idea if it means one stops growing.

 If being grown-up means that I have garnered the wisdom, the skills, and the knowledge necessary to achieve a successful life, and stop accumulating new wisdom, skills, and knowledge, I’m not interested; I don’t want to grow up, ever. The most interesting, enjoyable, and exciting parts of life involve learning. The greatest thrill in life is the elation that comes from having a new idea, an original way of understanding, explaining, or expressing an experience, a process, or a sensation. It is not important that others may have made the same observation. The act of creation is exercising your ability to think and create. Exercising your mental muscles can make you smarter, wiser, and happier.

Learning begins when a person’s brain starts to form. Evolution has provided us with some specialized cells in our bodies, but, for the most part, our brains (more accurately our nervous systems) start out as empty vessels. After birth, our neurons start specializing based upon plans laid out in our DNA and activated by our sensory inputs. We start out experiencing and responding to pain and hunger and, as our sensors develop, we react to light, sound, pressure, taste, and smell. Most wondrous of all, we remember

It’s logical that the rate of learning is greatest when we’re just born, or even when we’re still  a fetus, since we’re starting with nothing, but it’s wrong to assume that our ability to learn has to deteriorate as we grow older. Here’s what science tells us about learning:

Many years ago, a group of experimental psychologists at Princeton University decided to explore the question of whether the ability to learn deteriorates as humans age. They created a device that measured the time it took a person to perform simple tasks in an artificial environment that forced them to solve problems in entirely new ways. They then had a tool that answered the question of whether learning ability and age are related. Their goal was to see whether the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” was true. To verify the effectiveness of their device, they went into the town of Princeton and measured a sample of people of various ages and occupations. They were startled by the results.

It seemed that children were the most capable learners and that learning ability deteriorated slowly until about the age of 40, after which there was a sharp drop-off. Older people seemed to have lost the ability to learn new things. You can imagine the dismay of the psychologists, especially the older ones. So, they expanded the sample to include faculty and researchers at the University. Among the people tested was Albert Einstein, who was in his eighties at the time. Einstein, in his eighties, had the learning ability of a typical eight-year-old.

The researchers observed that Princeton townspeople in their sample tended to be comfortable in their lives, had completed raising their children, and had drifted into a pattern that focused on comfort and avoiding stress and conflict. Their objective was to use their existing knowledge and skills to earn a livelihood and then to retire. The opportunity for career advancement in the small town of Princeton was limited; the more ambitious of their children moved elsewhere to find challenging jobs. 

The conclusions of the researchers were:

  • The human brain functions very much like the muscles in its body. As muscles need to be exercised throughout a human lifetime, so does the brain.
  • When people continually challenged themselves to solve problems and learn new information and skills, there was little deterioration of their thinking and learning ability.
  • When people stopped using their brains, their ability to think and learn deteriorated, atrophied, just like unused muscles. 
  • The neurons that make up our brains deteriorate much slower than the cells in the rest of our bodies. An older person may not be able to lift weights, run, and jump like a youngster, but the ability to learn and think if continually exercised remains robust even at advanced ages.
  • When people give up and when they stop learning and allow their learning muscles to atrophy, their ability to learn may be gone forever.

The message should be clear to you: You have a world of opportunities to create, solve problems, fulfill your dreams, and help others fulfill their dreams. But finding the one opportunity that’s right for you is not easy. The way to keep your options open and have the most career opportunities in your future is to prepare and acquire the tools and knowledge that will give you the most choices when you go out into the world to fulfill your destiny. 

Stay curious, thirst for knowledge, and learn from everyone you meet because “everyone knows something you don’t.” In this wonderful world we live in, you have access to all the knowledge in the world. Take advantage of that access.

My final bit of advice: An open mind is essential. A closed mind is devastating to the process of learning. A truly educated person must be prepared to change his or her mind and accept the advancing knowledge of our society. To do this, you need to be able to say, with great sincerity,

I’m sorry! I made a mistake! I don’t know! Please help me!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.