Hear a Mobile Phone Conversation from 1948!

On August 2, 1948, listeners to WTHT in Hartford, Connecticut, got to hear a conversation carried out by mobile telephone between the radio studio and a car speeding down a highway.  I’m now pleased to share the audio of that historic broadcast, which might be the oldest recording of a real mobile phone conversation—one that involved a wireless connection to a regular phone network.  It’s an extremely early example, at least, and my searches to date haven’t turned up anything earlier.  Now that mobile phones have become a mainstay of our telecommunications landscape, the WTHT Mobile Telephone Service (MTS) demonstration from 1948 offers us a fun glimpse at a time when the ability to make an ordinary phone call to someone on the move seemed nothing short of miraculous.

A brief report of the demonstration can be found in Broadcasting, August 16, 1948, page 77:

mobile-phone-demonstrationThe Southern New England Telephone Company had been founded in January 1878 as the District Telephone Company of New Haven, which is credited with founding the world’s first telephone exchange and issuing the world’s first telephone directory.  When it entered the mobile telephone field in 1948, it wasn’t quite as much at the forefront of things; according to AT&T, the first mobile telephone call had been placed by a driver in St. Louis on June 17, 1946, and by 1948 urban mobile service was reportedly available in sixty cities.  Even so, it remained such a novelty in that period that the on-air demonstration in Hartford was considered newsworthy enough for a national broadcasting trade magazine to publish a report about it afterwards.

wtht-label-1948A twelve-inch instantaneous lacquer disc recording of the broadcast surfaced four years ago as lot 1190 in the fiftieth auction of Nauck’s Vintage Records, and I was the successful high bidder at a whopping $4.51.  The auction catalog had credited the piece to “Hank Murphy & Female co-host,” with the description: “Hank does an on-air demonstration of the ‘new’ mobile phone technology!”  That wasn’t quite accurate, as it turns out, but the part about the on-air demonstration of mobile phone technology was right on target.

I’ve identified the people heard in the broadcast—apart from an unnamed female Operator—as:

  • Floyd Hall Pattee (FP), the WTHT radio personality who makes the phone call.
  • Elizabeth “Betty” Crotty Pattee (BP), his wife and WTHT co-host.
  • Hank Murphy (HM), a news photographer for the Hartford Times (which owned and operated WTHT), who receives FP’s call on a mobile car telephone.
  • Edwin P. Hurley (EH), special control services manager for the Southern New England Telephone Company, who must have been on hand to help with technical arrangements and to promote the new service.

Without more ado, here’s the recording itself, followed by my attempt at a transcription in case you want to read along.

BP: —really sitting here doing this!
FP: Uh, this is the mobile service operator. I want JR62375. Welcome.
BP: Will the sound of a—
FP: Uh, what is this number, 26838?
EH: That’s correct.
FP: 26838. Welcome. This is just like a regular phone call, ’cept it’s a mobile service operator.
BP: [laughs]
FP: Very polite and courteous, too.
BP: [overlapping the above] Excuse me if I’m tittering, dear, I feel like about twelve years old. I can remember the first time I tho— I heard my first radio program.
Operator: [click] —375?
HM: Car (?) JR62375.
Operator: Hank (?), go ahead please.
FP: Hiya, Hank?
HM: 62375, Hank Murphy car (?).
FP: Righto, Hank.
HM: Hi!
FP: Uh, Floyd Pattee at the studio.
HM: Yes, Floyd!
FP: Well! We made it!
HM: I guess we did!
FP: All Betty’s doubts are removed!
HM: Well, I’m down on my way, uh, to the airport, uh—
FP: [unclear]—
HM: —just came from Newington, and I was going to check to see if our Times plane’s available for a flight to there (?).
FP: You’re down to the airport, just came over from Newington, hmm?
HM: Uh, yeah.
FP: Uh, say, Hank, uh, if— would your city desk ordinarily be calling you perhaps on the mobile unit just like this, maybe with a change, uh, of assignment, maybe around on one assignment, you’ve been over there in Newington, you’ve gone down to the air— airport, maybe some news has come into the city desk, Frank Ahearn might be calling you on this, uh, uh, mobile telephone service and say, Hank, uh, go somewhere else now, uh, would it work out that way for you?
HM: Absolutely!
FP: Uh-huh. Uh, for example, any, uh, could you give us any instance where this might have, uh, might have worked in such a manner for you?
HM: Uh, well, Friday afternoon, uh, we had a, uh, unfortunate accident in West Suffield Lock (?).
BB: Oh yes.
HM: Fellow ran into a helicopter propeller, and I happened to be in Windsor at the time and, uh, heard the state police cars, and we chased ’em, but, uh, they got ahead of us, and we had to stop and, uh, get the Hartford police and, uh, get coordinated on where this accident was, and, uh, by the time we got there we found out there was only one person injured, and, uh, the nearest phone happened to be two miles away, and, uh, uh, if we could’ve called right from the spot, uh, we’d have made the press an earlier edition, it was front page news.
FP: Oh yes, yeah. Say, uh, when you’re working that phone out in the car, now, Hank, do you have to, uh, don’t you have a little button on the, uh, receiver which you have to, uh, uh, press, uh, when you want to talk, you, uh, you press a button, then when you want to listen, you release it, is that the way it works?
HM: Well, that’s the way it works, press for, uh, transmission then, uh, releasing it for receiving.
FP: Now, how’s that worked out on our conversation right now, uh, have I been, uh, talking maybe too fast for you, or have you been getting all I’ve said.
HM: Oh no, you’re not talking too fast, you should hear the city editor.
FP: [laughs] You should hear the city editor. [laughs] Is Frank listening now?
HM: Don’t know, I imagine, uh, he might be.
FP: Well, thanks a lot, Hank, uh, this has really been wonderful, I feel like a— a pioneer in science.
HM: Well good for you, well, we’re on our way back now—
FP: Right.
HM: —going down the highway at thirty miles an hour.
FP: Okay, uh, see you later, Hank.
HM: Bye—
FP: So long. [end of call; change in sound quality] There you are.
BP: Oh, Patsy, I think that’s wonderful. Oh, my goodness gracious.
FP: Thank the Southern New England Telephone Company for that.
BP: Yes, I— I’m overwhelmed. Well, you were right, Mister Hurley, it worked. You talked to him, and he was there, and we know that he’s somewhere out in a car.
FP: Well, uh, just how does this work, does every, every car, uh, have a, have its own phone number?

The recording begins and ends abruptly, as though whoever made it wanted to capture the historic mobile phone conversation but didn’t care much about what came beforehand or afterwards.  However, we’re probably listening to part of an episode of the show Floyd and Betty Pattee had launched together nearly a year before, as reported in Billboard, August 30, 1947, p. 15:

FIRST New England network presentation of a Mr. and Mrs. show gets under way September 15 when Floyd and Betty Pattee, of Hartford, Conn., start a five-a-week series over WTHT, Hartford; WELI, New Haven, and WNAB, Bridgeport. Program, to be aired at 1 p.m. weekdays, will be sponsored by Storecast Corporation of America, supermarket merchandising firm.

I gather from this account that the “Mr. and Mrs. show” was a thing at the time—a distinct genre of husband-and-wife program.  The mobile phone used in the demonstration was obviously no modern smartphone.  It wasn’t even hand-held; we’re talking about an eighty-pound Motorola behemoth wired into the car itself and powered by the car battery.  There were just six channels available to the urban MTS at any one time, if that, and each call required the assistance of a mobile service operator like the one we briefly hear.  As a mobile user, Hank Murphy had to push a button to transmit and release it to receive, and he would also have tapped the same button to alert the mobile service operator if he wanted to initiate a call.  But as primitive as the system might appear in retrospect, Floyd and Betty Pattee seem to have been pretty impressed by it back in 1948: Floyd said he felt like a “pioneer in science,” and Betty was reminded of the time she’d heard her first radio program.  It’s always illuminating when we can listen to people of the past expressing their astonishment about things we now take for granted.

The conversation we hear is a “real” mobile phone conversation, with actual information being exchanged, although it’s admittedly not typical of how Hank expected to use the system in his line of work (newspaper reporters were a prime target for the urban mobile phone service, along with delivery truck drivers).  Significantly, when Floyd asked Hank to describe a concrete instance where he’d used a mobile telephone on the job, Hank couldn’t come up with one; instead, he referred to a recent case in which he wished he’d had access to a mobile telephone but hadn’t—the helicopter propeller accident on Friday afternoon (which would have been July 30).  In light of Hank’s rhetorical dodge, I suspect the on-air demonstration marks a time when the Hartford Times had just adopted the mobile phone but didn’t yet have any serious experience with it.  Maybe this was actually Hank’s own first time using one.

“You talked to him, and he was there, and we know that he’s somewhere out in a car,” Betty Pattee enthused back in 1948.  Little did she anticipate the safety problem that would come from people’s use of hand-held phones while driving half a century later.

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One thought on “Hear a Mobile Phone Conversation from 1948!

  1. Pingback: My Fiftieth Griffonage-Dot-Com Blog Post | Griffonage-Dot-Com

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