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How to Make a Myth: Captain Kirk Didn’t Invent the Mobile Phone, but Dick Tracy Did

Know your Dynatac from your Microtac, your cult space commanders from your comic book classic detectives? Everything is not as it seems in the origin story of the mobile phone...

By Miranda WeindlingPublished 3 years ago 7 min read
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Captain Kirk and his Communicator (Fair Use)

‘Martin Cooper can recall the moment when he was at a break in his lab watching the episode of Star Trek when Kirk used his Communicator to call for help for an injured Spock, which later inspired him to invent the mobile phone.’

Forbes

In 2006 I broke my metallic blue Motorola Razr flip phone by throwing it against a wall. I should say, accidentally throwing it against the wall. I was devastated. I had pleaded and begged for this phone, the phone of my 15-year-old dreams. My dad had baulked at the price, it was a hard no. But, after many moons of scouring the internet, I found a second-hand one going on eBay, and my dad relented. It was a sweet victory, and I cherished this baby. Or I did until I catapulted it into a brick wall, which left me with two pieces of defunct phone held together by a thin thread of wire.

Now, if memory serves me correctly, I threw it into a wall in shock when someone crept up behind me and made me jump. Either that or I had a tennis ball in the other hand and meant to throw that, but someone distracted me. Or, perhaps, it wasn’t even me that broke it but one of my friends. Or maybe I just dropped it, but that version is the least interesting. Besides, memory is a funny thing, a funny, unreliable thing prone to distortions and fabrications...

A History of the Flip Phone

The Motorola StarTAC (Creative Commons)

The original Motorola Razr was a descendent of the first-ever flip phone, the StarTAC. The Motorola StarTAC, launched in 1996, was complete with other innovations such as vibrate and a whopping two-line LED display screen, the largest to date. The heritage of these phones can be traced back to the first mobile phone ever, the original brick, officially known as the Dynatac 8000X, the first commercially available mobile phone publicly launched by Motorola in 1983. You may remember it from such films as Wall Street, American Psycho, and Reservoir Dogs. The actual mobility of this phone is debatable. Yes, it was handheld and wireless, but coming in at 790g and over 30 cm in length meant you had to have a big bag and be feeling strong if you wanted to carry it around with you all day. Given its Hollywood character stereotyping, perhaps there is a connection between its punishing size and its popularity amongst criminally unhinged men.

Patrick Bates in American Psycho on his Dynatac (Fair Use)

However, four years later, in 1989, the Motorola Microtac 9800X came on to the scene and the revolution was upon us. This featherweight champion came in at 350g and could just about fit in your pocket. We also have the origins of Motorola’s distinctive flip, well it’s more a pseudo flip, as that piece of plastic did nothing but provide a keypad covering. It featured a hole to give the illusion that the microphone was in the bottom half, but in reality, this was just an aesthetic gimmick.

So in my humble opinion, the StarTAC was the first true flip phone. It had the screen and dial pad on one half, and the microphone on the other. It also hinged completely in half, so you only need to hold the lower segment in your hand, which meant, with a deft flick of your thumb, you could literally flip it open. This flipping action, aesthetic, but above all its name, has an iconic cultural reference: Star Trek and Captain Kirk’s communicator.

But the influence of the Communicator on the mobile phone extends back further and is far more profound than a tongue-in-cheek name of a 90s phone model.

A Legend is Born: Captain Kirk Invented the Mobile Phone

Google’ Star Trek Motorola’, ‘Star Trek mobile phone’, or even’ inventor of mobile phone’ and your first page on all these searches will tell you that the inventor of the mobile phone was Martin “Marty” Cooper, a Motorola engineer, and that he was initially inspired to create a portable phone that could work from anywhere after watching Star Trek and seeing Captain Kirk’s Communicator. Given the strength of its SEO, it won’t surprise you to know that this much-cited story has been repeated by everyone from Forbes to the Science Museum to The Washington Post to Wikipedia.

As these are all reputable institutions, platforms, and publications, that probably have an army of fact-checkers, we can assume that this is a solid truth. Or can we?

Well, it turns out Martin Cooper is more of a comic book fan. In a 2015 interview, Cooper set the record straight and said no, Captain Kirk was not the inspiration for the mobile phone. This was impossible because telecommunication companies had been bouncing around the idea of a mobile phone long before Star Trek even existed. But, Cooper goes on to say, if credit must go to a fictional character, then let that be comic book detective Dick Tracy and his two-way wrist radio communication device.

Dick Tracy and his 2-way wrist radio in 1949 (Fair Use)

Given that Cooper was born in Chicago in 1928 and Dick Tracy came on the scene in 1931 in the Detroit Mirror (at the risk of creating another false fact), he would have grown up with the Dick Tracy comics. We know how formative our childhood years are in forging our adult selves, and most kids have fantasised about owning or making some gadget or gizmo, be it real or fantasy. So the fact that Cooper got to make his childhood fantasy tech into a reality is pretty amazing. Cute story, huh?

But where did the original Star Trek tall story come from? Well, Cooper himself. In 2005 he was approached by the documentary team of How William Shatner Changed the World, a documentary dedicated to Star Trek’s influence. It should be said that this is a highly tongue-in-cheek, borderline mockumentary production, and perhaps this is why Marty played ball with their mobile phone origin story request (from 12.46 mins if you want to fact check me). Sure, Captain Kirk inspired the mobile phone, sure I watched Star Trek at the office. A legend is born.

Because it’s a great story, right? Boring teams of engineers and scientists don’t create technological innovations, but science fiction and cult icons that we all know and love do! You will find similar such stories for the helicopter, smartwatches (Dick Tracy again), the atomic bomb, video calls, and many, many more...

What’s a Fact Anyway?

‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

The legend of a fictional character inventing the mobile phone, or any other technology, is hardly unique. We make sense of the world through story, and if the story is alluring enough, we adhere to it so ardently that we cement it into fact. A phenomenon that has been repeated time and time again, from individuals to entire cultures and civilisations, to create, quite literally, history.

But as the sayings go, ‘history is written by the victors’, ‘seeing is believing’, ‘don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’. We have a multitude of similar cliches and sayings that speak to our ability to weave fiction into facts — and yet interrogating the reality of our facts is something we still struggle to do, particularly if they are convenient, enforce our existing belief system, or are just rather charming.

As far as history goes, however, there is an urgent drive to re-think who we choose to commemorate in statues and the names of buildings or streets. There is a push to re-write our curriculums to give a more accurate representation of the bloody atrocities of colonialism, genocides and racism — and a huge shove back against this in order to retain the stories of our forefathers.

In the very near future, we will be able to trust very little of what we see. Deepfakes are on the rise, creating very credible realities out of a mind’s fantasy in everything from politics to porn.

The internet has fuelled our current golden age of conspiracy theories. But in each conspiracy’s warped logic there is a grain of truth. Flat Earthers skew science based on horizon curvature and the angle sun rays hit the earth. Anti-vaxxers cleave to the fact that a study linking autism to the MMR vaccine published in the elite medical journal the Lancet. It wasn’t redacted due to some Big Pharma-government effort to control us, but was discredited after an extensive Sunday Times investigation showed the results of the study were manipulated and several undisclosed conflicts of interest, including funding received from a legal group looking to discredit vaccines to further their cases.

Even what is credited as cold hard, reputable, scientific truths are filtered through human interpretation. This is how an empirical fact is made: my partner is a scientist, and when he runs an experiment, things happen. These things are his data set. He then makes a series of interpretations and judgements, which he publishes in a paper, a form of storytelling, which becomes scientific fact. These are, of course, informed, intelligent interpretations, corroborated and challenged by other experts and peers. But, nonetheless, they are a form of story.

There are many theories about what makes humans unique and special, and one of them is this proclivity for story. We have formed cohesive societies and kept ourselves hurtling into the future, whilst reflecting on the past, for the love of the story. Of course, sometimes a fact really can be a fact, and sometimes an anecdote, like the story of a broken mobile phone, is benign enough that it doesn’t matter how much of it is reality or fiction. But the next time you go questing for the truth, particularly on the internet, take a minute to consider whether what you are reading or sharing really is the truth, or if it's just another convenient myth.

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About the Creator

Miranda Weindling

Ghostwriter who occasionally finds time to write for herself.

If you're curious find out more here, or on Instagram to see what I'm watching, reading, thinking.

Originally from the UK, currently living in Melbourne, Australia.

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