Bizarre Technology: Shopping for phone signal

Users of the earliest mobile phones had to go to some bizarre places to make a call...
23 April 2019

Interview with 

Chris Johnson, University of Glasgow


Image of a hand holding an old mobile phone


Chris Smith asks computer scientist Chris Johnson, from the University of Glasgow, to reminisce about the bizarre early years of mobile phones.

Chris J - As a kind of first step to a mobile phone. Well I mean probably the most important thing about modern mobile phones is that they’re cellular. So every 20 miles typically today you have at least one base station and your mobile phone is transmitting from your pocket or whatever to that base station. But obviously it took a long time for those base stations and that network to be fully built.

So then companies like this company Rabbit in the UK had the idea that they would they would enable you to make telephone calls but only in a very small number of locations where they'd done a deal with the shop owners to put in a very small base station. So it'd be like you know having the base station for your phone in your house but then having another one in local shops and these weren't like the current phone masts that we have, because the current ones do 20 miles approximately radius. These ones were 100 meters right. So I work in the University of Glasgow and our local base station for this phone network was in the Iceland frozen food shop. So today when you're on the train or whatever people home say “on the train, I'm on the train” the only conversation that you could have had with the first generation mobile phone would be “frozen peas. I'm moving on to the chicken section.”

Chris S - Chris did that lead to a lot of cold calling then?

Chris J - To me then the important point is this is like so much of technology that it becomes so ingrained within your life that even having a conversation about technology like that is a weird place that people sort of think” you're making this up aren’t you” but believe me there were hundreds of people, thousands of people in the UK carrying around the phone about the size of a small vehicle to the local Iceland shop so they could make a phone call.


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