Vodafone Age 30: "How I made the first cellular phone call in Britain"
Today, 30 years ago, Michael Harrison, son of the then chairman of fledgling Vodafone, made the first cellular call on the new network. He had travelled to London with a phone weighing 11 pounds and pressed the call button from Parliament Square, next to Churchill's statue, at one minute into the new year of 1985. The first mobiles, such as the Vodafone VT1 shown in the top picture, were massive and featured a large battery back with a wired handset. In the early years, the big market was for phones in cars (hence the establishment of Carphone Warehouse).
There had been a pre-cellular radio telephone service in the UK since 1959 when the Post Office radio telephone network was established. These were clunky devices, requiring an involved car installation and a long flexible aerial. They were mostly simplex in operation, requiring the user to press to talk and then release the button in the handle to listen. The call was requested verbally from the radiophone operator but, despite the limitations, the system was surprisingly effective as means of communication while on the road. I had a radiophone installed in my car in 1975 and it attracted enormous interest and some incredulity.
As the Vodafone network expanded nationally, the new cellular technology effectively killed off the old radio network, and it was perhaps natural that the first use of cellular was in cars. It cost around £2,000 for a car installation, equivalent to £8,000 today, so it was hardly a mass market. It took nearly ten years before really pocketable phones reached the market.
Vodafone, a pioneer of cellular technology, was a spin-off from the British electronics group Racal which had bought the enabling technology from Decca in 1980. Two years later Racal's chairman, Ernest Harrison, applied for the first mobile licence and Vodafone (an acronym of Voice Data Fone) started operations in January 1985. That year the company attracted 7,000 subscribers, a figure that rose to half a million by 1989, one million in 1993 and ten million at the turn of the century. In 1992 the world's first text message, "Happy Christmas", was sent over the Vodafone network. The early introduction of text messaging across all networks meant that Britain was soon addicted to SMS. Even ten years later texting was far less popular in the USA because of the then difficulty of communicating across networks.
Now there are nearly 80 million mobile phones in Britain, powered by the four main networks, including Vodafone. I no longer know anyone who does not own a mobile phone. As with the Internet and the World Wide Web, it is difficult to imagine life before Vodafone.