It weighed nearly 2 pounds (1 kilogram) and cost close to US$4,000. It took almost 10 hours to charge. And it worked for only 30 minutes before the battery died. Even the creators owned up to the phone’s signature liability, nicknaming it “The Brick.” But Motorola had done it: After nearly a decade of development, the U.S. telecom had created the very first commercial mobile phone, the DynaTAC 8000X. While the rest of the industry was focused on putting mobile phones in cars, Motorola made a critical pivot and put the technology in people’s hands. And people responded.

“Consumers were so impressed by the concept of being always accessible with a portable phone that waiting lists for the DynaTAC 8000X were in the thousands,” Rudy Krolopp, Motorola design master, recalled on the 20th anniversary. “In 1983, the notion of simply making wireless phone calls was revolutionary.”

Motorola engineer and cellphone inventor Martin Cooper had produced the first successful prototype in April 1973. His initial call, on a busy street corner thronged by cameras, went to his rival Joel Engel, PhD, at AT&T’s Bell Labs for a little friendly gloating. But Cooper’s breakthrough wasn’t commercially viable. “The first [phones] we made were a research product,” Krolopp said. “The DynaTAC wasn’t designed to be manufactured and mass-produced.”

To overcome that hurdle would take US$100 million, an all-hands-on-deck effort and occasional battles with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Internally, Motorola enlisted hundreds of its employees across many divisions, creating custom integrated circuits and microprocessors, ditching the prototype’s two vertical rows of number buttons for a more familiar three-by-four grid and evolving the antenna designs. As with any first-mover achievement, timing was everything. The DynaTAC 8000X was specifically designed for Ameritech’s advanced mobile phone system (AMPS) network—North America’s first 1G analog cellular infrastructure that, like the 8000X, was more than a decade in the making. The AMPS network debuted in October 1983, and only a few months later Motorola sold its first 8000X.

“We couldn’t build them fast enough,” Krolopp said. “Businesses started taking them on, and it became something else, a part of business—not a convenience, but a necessity.”

Motorola wasn’t alone in spotting an opportunity. Around the world, other mobile phone systems were taking shape. NTT rolled out a 1G system in Tokyo, Japan in 1979, while the Nordic Mobile Telephone standard was the first network to introduce global roaming a couple of years later. It would take another decade for mobile phones to go fully mainstream, boosted by smaller and more portable devices such as the flip phone, another breakthrough project from Motorola in 1989.

When the smartphone era arrived, taking mobile communications to a whole new level, Motorola got passed in the marketplace by a wave of iPhones and Galaxys. But sometimes even legacy tech brands get a chance to come full circle: Thirty-six years after unveiling the first commercial cellphone, Motorola produced the first device capable of working with 5G wireless networks.

1983

Motorola DynaTAC 8000X

The one that started it all: the world’s first commercial cellphone

1994

IBM Simon

Teams start to add enhancements: email, fax, calendar, touch screen

1996

Nokia 9000 Communicator

The first “smartphone” with a graphical web browser

2002

Research In Motion BlackBerry 5810

The first commercially successful smartphone to feature email capability—quickly the must-have accoutrement for the C-suite and exec wannabes

2004

Motorola RAZR V3

A team of sociologists, psychologists and graphic designers built what one writer dubbed “the first cellphone deemed sexy.”

2007

Apple iPhone

The device that redefined smartphones with what founder Steve Jobs called “an iPod, a phone and an internet communicator.”

2011

Samsung Galaxy Note

Its 5.3-inch (13-centimeter) screen was unprecedented at the time and helped popularize the large phone trend

2019

Royole FlexPai

The small Chinese upstart delivered the first smartphone with a foldable screen.

2019

Motorola moto z3

The world’s first commercially available phone designed to run on emerging 5G networks