Who Invented the Cell Phone?

John F. Mitchell invented the transistorized pager and wireless portable cellphone

Tuesday 25 September 2012 at 8:28 pm. Used tags: , , , , , , , , ,

John F. Mitchell ranks among the top electrical engineers in American history.

John F. Mitchell was a quiet, frugal but generous man, who was dedicated to wife and family, his three brothers, William, Jay and Ned, and friends and associates; and to aspiring engineers, and to the Irish Culture and Performing Arts.  Mitchell avoided accolades; always giving credit for his accomplishments to associates.  He received numerous business, academic and civic awards and was sought by many such organizations to join their boards. Mitchell’s awards lie in several piles in corners of his private study.

Mitchell, like all great achievers had numerous talents from athleticism to Irish singing, penny whistling and storytelling; to super intellectual curiosity, creativity and world class genius; and also to high energy corporate executive leadership - "getting the job done with zero defects" or “doing it the engineering way with Mitchell testing” as Mitchell would always say; and upon which Motorola built its Six-Sigma culture, leading to the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award from the US Congress in 1988.

After IIT and a three year stint as a Communications Officer in the US Navy, Mitchell joined Motorola a few years after Bob Galvin, son of the Paul Galvin, a founder of Motorola along with his brother, Joseph. Both Galvin and Mitchell rose quickly through the ranks on merit to CEO and COO respectively.

In his early years at Motorola, Mitchell quickly extended Motorola’s automobile-based radio technology and Walkie Talkie technology to portable wireless devices, inventing the transistorized wireless pager in 1960. After his appointment as Chief Engineer, Communications, Mitchell continued pursuing his idea for a ubiquitous wireless cellphone with his protégé, the gifted Martin Cooper whom Mitchell mentored for 30 years.  “Together they invented the wireless cell phone” which forever changed the way people communicate around the world. Mitchell boasted that his creation would be useful to a “widely diverse of group of people-businessmen, journalists, doctors, and housewives, virtually anyone.”

Paul Galvin had an ally in his pursuit of quality. As Chief Engineer, Mitchell was relentless in his pursuit of quality, and was known to “rip pagers from trouser belts to test whether the belt clip would secure.”  This practice led to the introductions of “Mitchell Tests” as an integral part of the manufacturing and measurements processes. In turn, Mitchell’s oversight and encouragement changed the entire engineering culture at Motorola to achieve Six-Sigma quality outcomes in all manufacturing endeavors; and the development of the Motorola Six-Sigma Institute, to enable all corporations in the USA to compete and exceed the highest standards practiced in Japan’s manufacturing processes.

Mitchell was also known to delegate from time to time his executive responsibilities to his captains, freeing himself to join Cooper and Jim Mikulski in the research laboratory. Their cellophony initiatives placed them directly in the path of the AT&T juggernaut; a race Motorola won twice, first in 1973 when Mitchell and his team (Martin Cooper, Richard W. Dronsurth, Albert J. Leitich, Charles N. Lynk,  James J. Mikulski, John F. Mitchell, Roy A. Richardson, and John H. Sangster) were awarded a patent in NYC (see picture); and second in 1983 when the “Boot” – the first truly portable cell phone was introduced.   


Motorola Vice President John F. Mitchell shows off the DynaTAC portable radio telephone in
New York City in 1973.

With the great successes of the portable cell phone, CEO Bob Galvin in 1990 announced and launched the Iridium Project, quickly dubbed the 8th Wonder of the World – worldwide global communications satellite system for iridium cell phones. It was a bold move by Galvin to leverage Motorola’s magnificent cellophony and engineering technology to place Motorola in the forefront as the pre-eminent provider of worldwide cellophony communications services. With hindsight, the bold move seemed as if Galvin had a premonition of ubiquitous worldwide dominance of the cell phone in the early 21st century.

Notwithstanding Galvin, John F. Mitchell certainly had that vision when he announced on August 2 1990 that:  “Iridium brings personal communications to the world – it represents the potential for any person on the planet to communicate with any other.  For this reason, Iridium marks the next major milestone in global communications.”    Of course, like Six-Sigma, It was up to John Mitchell to deliver the product;  to travel the globe for nearly two years soliciting $5 Billion in financial and marketing support for the monumental engineering and marketing project which would solve technical problems that befuddled NASA.  Iridium immediately became the darling of Wall Street. In addition, the Motorola (“can do”) world class engineering organization built by Mitchell had to design and implement the Iridium system.  77 satellites were launched, hence the name Iridium.   During 377 days, 1998-99, 72 Iridium satellites, each weighing 1412 pounds, in 15 launches were flawlessly put into orbit, circling the earth in 100 minutes, creating network coverage to all points on earth via 18 ground relay gateways.

The implementation of Iridium was remarkably flawless due to the zero-defect, six-sigma culture that permeated the world class engineering organization built by John F. Mitchell, who still simply would not take personal credit for any of his achievements.  

When marketing plans went awry, Mitchell was first to step into the breach, accepting ownership and navigating a corrective course which included his personal efforts to raise another $2 billion to support the tepid marketing efforts from Iridium partners.   Of course and unfortunately, Iridium did fail for two reasons:  (1) the success of the Motorola cell phone itself, with greater than expected volume of sales, and greater than expected productivity improvements in manufacturing costs, eroded market share from the Iridium potential market base; and (2) major owner-partners of Iridium like China and India failed to give Iridium the marketing priority it promised and deserved.  

Wall Street dubbed Iridium as the “worst business failure ever,” a claim that was premature and never substantiated.  More than 100 books and 1000s of articles have been written and published about Iridium and many writers claimed victory for John F. Mitchell and Motorola without rebuttals.

The happy endings are: (1) Iridium emerged from bankruptcy and is profitable as of 2012; filling a marketing void for security applications, including high risk situations for the military and CIA; (2) Iridium was a financial success for Motorola, although on a smaller scale than envisioned by Galvin and Mitchell; (3) Google paid more than $12 billion for old Motorola (and Mitchell) engineering patents; (4) amazingly, in an age of obsolescence, Mitchell’s 20 year old engineering is still working in the 77 satellites in 6 orbital planes around the globe, and “helping to save lives.”

John F. Mitchell delayed his retirement from Motorola until all was well in 2000 but continued to pursue his philanthropy.  Mitchell was one of the architects, which included the renowned Chuck Feeney, (Duty Free Imports, and founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies, per perhaps the largest philanthropic foundation) of the huge expansion of the University of Limerick during the 1990s and 2000s through their work on the University of Limerick Foundation.

John F. Mitchell died peacefully June 9, 2009 at the age of 81 among his close family and brothers.  “During his 45-yerar career, Mitchell shaped the creation of nearly all of the wireless communications industries in the latter half of the 20th century.”  

This bio-apercu continues below with supporting detail and references.

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