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Why Are Mobile Phones Called Cell Phones? - Knowledge Stew

Why Are Mobile Phones Called Cell Phones?

December 6, 2016

iphone-410311_1280The phone you carry with you everyday is commonly referred to as a mobile phone or a cellular phone. While the former makes sense, why then was a phone ever called a “cellular phone”?

How It All Began

Before the advent of a phone that you could carry around, cellular meant, “consisting of cells,” or “something that contains cavities.” The definition for cellular changed to a new meaning with a concept brought forth by two Bell Lab engineers in 1947 named Douglas H. Ring and W. Rae Young. They proposed a network that would be composed of hexagonal cells to allow mobile phones in cars to operate from one spot to another seamlessly. The network layout would resemble that of a biological cell, hence the term cellular, but the technology to implement their concept didn’t exist at the time.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s when another group of Bell Lab researchers expanded the idea and began to come up with a way for the technology to work. Richard H. Frenkiel, Joel S. Engel and Philip T. Porter did just that and Porter was the first to propose that a multi-directional antennae, or cell tower, be used in the middle of each cell. This setup allowed the antennas to be multi-directional and a number of channels could be used to handle calls while the tower covered a particular cell. cellulartowers

But why are phones called both mobile phones and cellular phones, and is there a difference?

Mobile phones actually predate cellular phones as the first mobile phone system was launched by Bell System in 1946. It was a closed system where the calls had to be handled by an operator. But early mobile phone systems had a few distinct problems; there weren’t enough channels or frequencies to operate on, there were few antennas, and the phone required a powerful transmitter.

The cellular network became the complete opposite, allowing the same frequency to be reused so that more people could use their cell phones at the same time, and it required only low power transmission. What was more was that cellular networks could switch from cell to cell without a loss in transmission and the cellular phones were duplex devices. This meant that people could talk on a call at one time since there was a different frequency for talking and another for listening.

At some point the convergence of the term cellular phone and mobile phone became to mean essentially the same thing without any difference between the two, but calling a phone cellular might not be that accurate. It may be more proper to say that a mobile phone is used on a cellular network, or a network composed of cells.

Want to dive deeper into mobile phones? Try Why Are Mobile Phones Called 4G?

Sources: The Atlantic, UCSB, The Atlantic, Wikipedia


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Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites (you can find out how to join below). I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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