back to article 30 years ago today, the first commercial UK 'mobile' phone call was made

The first mobile phone calls were made on Cellnet and Vodafone 30 years ago today. The companies we know as Vodafone and O2 today were Racal-Vodafone and Securicor-Cellnet back then, phones were the size of a small suitcase and only did voice. They didn’t even let you assign names to the numbers in the phonebook. The two …

  1. 2+2=5 Silver badge

    That first call in full...

    > Michael Harrison secretly left his family’s New Year’s Eve party at their home in Surrey in the UK to surprise his father, calling him from London’s Parliament Square.

    Dad, can you come and pick me up?

  2. Anonymous Coward

    Meanwhile back in the early 70s

    An acquaintance of mine had a mobile "phone" in his car. It consisted of a Pye two-way radio with a handset that looked like it was straight off a standard GPO domestic phone. Callers rang a service number and the operator then radioed the subscriber in their car and passed the message on (and passed one back, if required).

    At least the wankers were isolated in their cars back then.

    1. Bloakey1

      Re: Meanwhile back in the early 70s


      "At least the wankers were isolated in their cars back then."


      I have fond memories of a Motorola 4000 car battery sized dooh dah and the lovely upgrade to a Motorola 8500x.

      Those were the days, a AN PRC10 weighed nothing and I oft times wombled far and wide carrying silly weights and wearing silly clothes that got heavier and wetter when it rained.

      Kids of today etc.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Meanwhile back in the early 70s@Bloakey1

        "and I oft times wombled far and wide carrying silly weights and wearing silly clothes that got heavier and wetter when it rained"

        Yeah, but that was back in the days when you were the dangerous chap delivering Milk Tray to ladies, right? I believe surprise was important then, so phoning ahead was not really part of the task. For my part...well, it doesn't matter what my small part was in the grand scheme of those days, but I'm glad I'm not doing that (white collar, office-ish) job now, what with all three remaining MODPlod probably wetting themselves over the insecurity of digital data, and every man jack traipsing in and out with gigabytes of storage in their pocket.

      2. Katie Saucey

        lovely upgrade to a Motorola 8500x

        Ahhh... the DynaTAC series, the only thing I remember of those phones was my mom's complaints to my father over the 4500$ cost (his only excuse for having one amounted to 'but all my coworkers are getting one!'), at least it got her off my back for dumping 800$ on an 85mb HDD instead of a car. Hard to remember sometimes how expensive tech toys were back in the '80s.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Meanwhile back in the early 70s

      Special Branch had them too. There was the slight disadvantage that they took up the entire boot.

    3. AndrueC Silver badge

      Re: Meanwhile back in the early 70s

      Cannon used to have one in his car as well.

      Mind you that was a dangerous car. It seemed like every time he got into it someone hit him on the head and kidnapped him.

      1. Just Another SteveO

        Re: Meanwhile back in the early 70s

        Remember many an episode with Frank C placing really small stones on the bonnet (hood) to check if someone had opened it and put really obvious looking dynamite sticks in there and picking up calls after his Lincoln Continental alerted him by 'bibbing the horn' as we used to say then.... I'm not sure that phrase wouldn't get you in trouble these days...

  3. Anonymous Coward


    Ha Ha - I remember seeing my first 'mobile' around 1989(?) - some car sales person had one in the pub - it looked like some sort of radio walkie talkie out of the TV show *mash*. It also cost about a £1.00 a minute to call it, which was a lot of money in them days.

    1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

      Re: Memories

      It also cost about a £1.00 a minute to call it, which was a lot of money in them days.

      Still used by a few networks for roaming calls so with that and the crazy trend for phablets

      it is pretty safe to say,

      not a lot has changed.

      A load of show off's still saying 'I'm on the train' in loud and obnoxious voices.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Memories

        "A load of show off's still saying 'I'm on the train' in loud and obnoxious voices."

        It's things like that make me yearn for a pocket signal jammer. Not continuous or wide area, just a pen sized, on-demand device that can cut twats off in their prime.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    First call

    I don't use tw*tter, but I can date my first call precisely because it was on Black Wednesday, and I was at a large meeting in London. Suddenly phones started to ring and people headed out to take the calls. After 5 or 6 had done so people were wondering what was happening. Then mine, which I had just acquired, rang.

    Well yes, I am here in London but no, I have no more idea of what's going on than you do because I'm in a meeting room. Yes I could catch the next train back but what use is that exactly? Interest rates are 15%? Just as well I can afford to pay off my mortgage then. Perhaps I should just go back to the meeting, the world won't end but I really need to listen to the next speaker.

    Looking back, it's amazing how much has changed in 22 years, and how completely out of touch people were once they left the office.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nice. An article that makes me feel young

    My first mobile phone and first mobile phone call? The Motorola International 5200 on the Vodafone Personal World tariff. 40 pence per minute, to make a call (with no allowance) and an arm and a leg for voicemail. I bought it because the the receptionists were logging incoming calls, and reporting anything that sounded like a recruitment agency to the paranoid boss. Fortunately, this awful phone, with its 8 hour battery, had been bought from Hutchinson. Within a couple of months they agreed to buy me out of my contract and put me on Orange. Orange's from-the-ground-up digital service was revolutionary, but the coverage abysmal.

    The analogue cellular networks were important (revolutionary, even), but capacity was a limiting factor. GSM bought with it both the capacity and the economies of scale that gave us the mobile boom.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Nice. An article that makes me feel young

      "The analogue cellular networks were important"

      Yes. In a poor signal area, speaking loudly and clearly, even actually shouting, got the information across rather than it just dropping out. My primary memory of this is the lay-by on the A59 near Blubberhouses. About the only place between Clitheroe and Harrogate where any kind of signal at all was possible.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Nice. An article that makes me feel young

        Yes, that was the advantage of analogue, if you could ignore the crossed lines. Japan kept its analogue networks long after Europe, because they were so bloody good. Australia went with Sprint style CDMA, for quite a long time, because this was the only digital tech that could match analogue when it came to covering a large, low density area.

        My experience? Well, my first ever proper business trip was North Sweden. Being able to get off the plane, switch on the Motorola V phone, and simply call home, was pretty amazing.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Nice. An article that makes me feel young

        "My primary memory of this is the lay-by on the A59 near Blubberhouses. About the only place between Clitheroe and Harrogate where any kind of signal at all was possible."

        Oh unhappy days! Where many years ago I enjoyed a twice daily school bus changeover. At a guess not much will have changed on the mobile phone front, or the vileness of schoolkids on a bus.

  6. Quentin North

    Oh no it wasn't.

    It's possible that this was not a commercial offering, but I sat in a car in Milton Keynes in 1981 and made a mobile phone call to the USA, so this 1986 date seems all wrong to me. From memory the phone I used was a true cellular car phone with a numeric keypad, single line numeric led display, and a diplexer and tx gear in the boot. Prior to this the company I worked for had Aircall radio phones, but they required the user to request the operator to make the call and patch it through.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Oh no it wasn't.

      This would be the service operated by the GPO that I referred to above. It was not cellular. It used a very limited number of dedicated channels, so it did not scale beyond a few police and rich people, and the network was frequently engaged.

      The UK lagged other countries in developing cellular networks, Japan followed by parts of Scandinavia. It's no coincidence that Nokia had such a large presence early, as Finland was one of the pioneers. If Milton Keynes was in Finland or Norway, you might have made a cellular call in 1981.

  7. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

    Kenny Everett did a sketch, istr

    He was mocking the size of these things years before Mr. Jolly.

    I can't find a link, but ISTR it started off with a yuppie either buying or showing off his new mobile/satellite phone and going on about how small it was. It was actually pretty small, but then the reveal comes and we see that he has to lug around a small cart with either a huge battery or huge antenna.

    Mind you, those shows were about 3-4 years before the 1985 date in the article, so maybe I'm misremembering...

  8. Eddy Ito
    Thumb Up

    Love the video. They should do something similar for the next XXL phablet to hit the market.

  9. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    "It's possible that this was not a commercial offering, but I sat in a car in Milton Keynes in 1981 and made a mobile phone call to the USA, so this 1986 date seems all wrong to me. From memory the phone I used was a true cellular car phone with a numeric keypad, single line numeric led display, and a diplexer and tx gear in the boot."

    At least here in the US, (this is all per Wikipedia...) the MTS (mobile telephone system) relied on operators; but IMTS (*Improved* Mobile Telephone System) was automated.

    It would send out a tone to mark a channel idle (the phone would scan for and lock onto the idle channel). If a call was coming in, it'd use a different tone to say a call's coming in, then pulse dialing (using two tones) to pulse out which phone the call's going to (the other phones would realize the channel's no longer idle and scan for the idle channel). The phone would send out a "seize" tone to be able to signal you've heard the phone ringing and picked up the handset. If you make an outgoing call on this system, the phone did the "seize" tone to signal it wants to make an outgoing call, then pulsed it's phone number to the base station. You'd get a dialtone, then rotary dial the number you wanted to call.

    But -- it wasn't cellular. They'd use a ~250 watt base station and ~20 watt mobile, with *one* site covering the entire coverage area. There was a HF, VHF, and UHF band but all 3 put together only had like 32 channels.

  10. david 12 Silver badge

    They weren't all wankers

    I can remember an engineering student being called out of lecture because the production line had stopped. His company, which had allowed him to be offsite for further study, had paid for the phone.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: They weren't all wankers

      Happened with some of the part time students, in lectures, in the early 90s. We didn't half take the piss ("Oh, I bet that makes you feel really important."). Ultimately, it was good to be studying alongside the grown ups.

  11. Christian Berger

    More info about the pre-cellular mobile networks in Germany...

    ...can be found here:

    It also has nice pictures, like the reason why we call mobile phone "Handy" (Although this one was for the analog cellular network C)

    Or the sideburns you needed to run the previous non-cellular B-Netz:

  12. Amorous Cowherder

    My Dad bought a Motorola "walkie-talkie" mobile around 1986, he paid about £600 for it and it cost a £1.50/min to call anyone.

  13. AndyFl

    not the first network

    I remember servicing system 4 car phones in 1985. Pye westminster kit full of crystals, you picked up the handset and the operator asked what number you wanted to call.

    Kinda makes the whole article a lie.


    1. knelmes

      Re: not the first network

      "Kinda makes the whole article a lie."

      Or you could actually read the article:

      "It wasn’t the first mobile system in the UK, there was a Carphone Radio service called Band 3, but that was push-to-talk and all calls had to go through an operator."

      1. AndyFl

        Re: not the first network

        System 4 was before band 3 and was not a PTT system but full duplex.

        The band 3 system was based on mpt1327 and internal calls did not need an operator.

        No doubt I'll be downvoted again but at least I've had both types of equipment in my hands and spent several years designing mpt1327 radios and infrastructure.

        In any case the systems were aimed at different markets. System 4 was PSTN but National-Band3 was for trucking companies, fleet vehicles etc who didn't need to make PSTN calls.

        System 4 was surprisingly usable.

  14. Anonymous Coward

    I was late to the party

    I'm pretty sure this was my 2nd phone

    I had to of course have the leather case so I could carry in on my belt.

    But for the life of me I can't seem to remember the 1st. It was a brown phone with a pull up ariel, but very slimline for it's age, no idea who made it though.

    Oddly I bought a mobile to call a friend in the states as it was cheaper than Telewest & BT. However soon found out that calling the girlfriend 10 miles up the round not the best idea, when you realised it was costing £20 a call!

    Still have the awesome 6310i as a standby; now there was a bloody good phone, Still today I can get 4 days on standby and that's on the original battery, in it's heyday, a month on standby was not unheard of. It's even survived a drop from the top of a multi-storey car park and being deposited from a moving car.

  15. Adolph Clickbait

    Starskey & Hutch

    We're always taking calls in their motor?

  16. Joe Harrison

    Nothing changed

    My first phone was a Motorola 4500 hardwired into the car. It was not new it was some sort of dodgy refurb that a mate in the trade had got from somewhere. That did not stop Nokia-Mobira from trying to "subsidise" it; when I read the small print they wanted me to sign a TEN YEAR contract!

    The next one was the standard 8500x brickphone and I remember being at the checkout queue in Safeway when it rang. Everything stopped and what felt like the entire shop just looked at me while I red-facedly gabbled "call you back later" into it.

    A later favourite was a star-tac thing on Mercury One2One because after 7PM local calls were free. Of course the network used to crash at 7:01 :(

  17. Simon Rockman

    Before Cellular

    Arlene Harris, founder of the US MVNO Great Call must be in her 60s now. She tells of of working as a telephonist when she was teenager for her parents mobile phone company where the operators had to listen to the calls so they could pull the plugs when the call finished.

  18. rodboffin

    It was a True Image Maker

    I had been working in a Colour Lab in London as their Sales Manager, and had no premises, little capital, but a lot of goodwill. The company had been taken over by an Asset-stripper and was going down the chute in a handcart. I had to move quickly and be on immediate call from the several clients I had managed to retain, the Vodafone 'Luggable' (originally destined to be hidden away in the boot of the car with just the handset alongside the driver) came out at just the right moment for me and became my 'calling card' – many laughed, but soon realised that I was way more contactable than my desk-bound competitors and those clients I retain from that era still remember me for the phone I carried!

    The first accessory I bought, at the outset, was a spare battery (which just happened to be 98% of the total bulk of the setup!) It had a tough strap with two heavy duty plastic clips which I had to put over my shoulder and it went everywhere with me. It was invaluable and when I was due to spend time with a client for an extended period, or when I was back with the retouchers, I could save battery charge by inputting a code *21*, the number I was at, followed by #, then turning the phone off, knowing I could relax in the knowledge I was still in touch. It even allowed me to have an occasional lie-in and my then wife would answer it, saying "I'll just see if I can put you through…" as I hastily dried my hands and spoke to them from my bath! Or strolled down from the bedroom in my birthday suit to answer as if I had been wide awake!

    It may have been heavy, but my company would never have taken off without it. It did have some downers; coverage was often lamentable when out in the sticks, and I gave Racal-Vodac much stick, most notably when I got so angry over poor reception that was specific to my handset, not the network, that I took the entire caboodle including the cables, and stormed into the Managing Director's office thumping it all on his desk; doing that with an iPhone just does not have the same effect! I got SERVICE, and a mollifying cup of tea.

    Ironically I am still with Vodafone to this day, so things are not all bad, but being a photographer I rarely use the iPhone for its camera, and it is certainly no longer an icon for 'SOLUTIONS photographic' that the Motorola phone was. Though it was never capable of taking a picture, it WAS the picture that all my clients remembered. It was an Image Maker.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Scanning 935-950.....

    I was amazed how many people I knew had scanners to listen in on the analogue FM calls, most of which were quite interesting (so I'm told!) due to the expense and thus the 'quality' of people owning them (or their line of work).

    I also remember the fuss about a royal phone call being recorded, and the TV news wheeling out their pet 'expert' - a professor no less - to tell us that there was NO WAY it could have been leaked from a 'radio ham' with such a scanner because you couldn't hear both sides of the conversation on the same channel. Oh how we laughed at that - it was almost always perfectly clear (both sides) on the base station transmissions!

    (and it seriously underlined why not to believe anything in the media without questioning it)

  20. Brew

    North Rim of the Grand Canyon, summer of 1980. I'm sitting on the lodge patio admiring the view when I become aware that there is a man directly behind me with a New York accent having a LOUD conversation with someone while speaking into a walkie-talkie type thing. I can't wait until we can all listen to 6 hour conversations on airplanes.

  21. Gannettt

    I didn't get my first mobile till 1998, but I remember in about 1993 seeing someone walking down the street talking to themselves and thinking "What a shame", then he turned the corner and i glimpsed the phone clamped to the side of his head. Shortly afterwards someone on the bus fired up the mobile to say they'd be late home, after he got off, you could hear the other passengers commenting about these new mobiles.

    When i think about the idea of being unavailable when out, it has the same sort of historical note that public phones with A and B buttons did when I was a kid.

  22. JamesTQuirk

    Are u people serious ? What where Walkie Talkies, during WW2 ?, Battery Powered radio communication equipment ...!, & Police cars where fitted with "Radio" Phone & 2 Way Radio far back as 40's, the size of the phone has shrunk, like your brains .....

    I got rid of all my android phone's, except a Sony, as it now runs linux, Sick of pockets calls, & google play etc eating my internet, the stupid phones hanging up or other issues when it touches your face, This is Year 43, for me playing with this, and New Android MOBILES are not up to scratch !!!

    PS old Hauwai sitting in cupboard off, for 18 Months, still had a full charge, that lasts 10 days !!!

  23. Nick Pettefar

    Essential Contractor's Kit

    1988, Philips PRC30. I was contracting in Cambridge at Philips Radio Communications and living in a caravan in Over (a small village). This £600 handheld mobile telephone kept me in touch with the world and agents.

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