When Martin Cooper of Motorola made his historic, first-ever cell-phone call from the streets of New York City to his Bell Labs rival in April 1973, his 30-ounce, brick-like, all-analog cell phone did not give much indication of the shape of things to come. Though it took ten years from his call for the first commercial cell phone to reach the market (the Motorola DynaTRAC 8000x), cellular and wireless technologies and markets are now drivers of our industry.
How did that cellular call come about? Engineers and scientists were grappling with two apparently insurmountable limitations of existing user-to-user and user-to-central station systems, namely, limits on overall range and on available spectrum. The former problem could be reduced somewhat by patching between the base station and the conventional telephone or similar system, but this approach was awkward and inflexible. On the other hand, the problem of limited spectrum (which meant a system could only support a few users at a time) seemed intractable. The only apparent approach was use clever compression and coding schemes to reduce the bandwidth needed by each user. However, the gain in capacity was relatively small despite the additional complexity (lots of pain, but little gain)
But completely “out of the box” thinking saved the day, and gave us a solution which has opened up what now seem to be limitless possibilities, that the developers of the cell system probably couldn't envision. By pioneering dynamic spectrum reuse, plus a system which needs a fairly complex system of integrated base stations and behind-the-scenes management, we have the cellular system. The very idea of having to design, develop, and seamlessly manage a huge infrastructure and system, in addition to managing the user handsets themselves, seemed ridiculous at first, but it was done and worked. Unfortunately, there has been very little scholarly work on the history and development of the cellular concept and system, as well as lessons we can learn from this,
But one lesson is clear: once again, a technical approach which seems unwieldy, even ludicrous, at first, eventually is seen as the only one which meets the critical requirements. This was the case with the final architecture of the Apollo moon mission, where the original plan (which went quite far in design) was to use a multistage rocket, but have the third stage be the vehicle from Earth to the moon, the actual lander on the moon, the liftoff vehicle, and the return vehicle to Earth—all in sharp contrast to the final and successful plan which used a lunar orbiter as a local “mother” ship, and a two-part lander which had to ferry the astronauts to the surface, and whose top part only would blast the astronauts from the moon's surface back to the lunar orbiter for the return to Earth.
This successful plan was promoted by one relatively low-level NASA engineer, who did many power, weight, and related studies on his own time to prove that the original strategy was unworkable—and he suffered through ridicule and scorn. But as the engineers delved further into their planned one-piece design, they kept hitting irresolvable impasses, and eventually realized that his “crazy” plan was the only one that could possibly work. (You can read about this and much more about the engineering of the Apollo missions, in Apollo: The Race to the Moon, by Charles Murray, Catherine Bly Cox.)
Can you think of any of situations where an initially ridiculed, very much “out-of-the-box solution triumphed? Some other obvious ones are the relativity principle, and also quantum theory. Let me know of other cases which appeal to you!
Bill Schweber , Site Editor, Planet Analog