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200 Years of Great Ideas and Hard Work Led To the Overnight Success of Your Smartphone

As I discussed in a previous post, the basic components of success are the idea, hard work, timing, and maybe a little bit of luck. Here, we’ll look at how that formula worked to create the massive success of the modern cell phone. Success As you walk down the street in any major city in […]

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
5 min read
Title: The Journey of the Communication Industry

As I discussed in a previous post, the basic components of success are the idea, hard work, timing, and maybe a little bit of luck. Here, we’ll look at how that formula worked to create the massive success of the modern cell phone.


As you walk down the street in any major city in the world, you can talk to your friends and family on your cell phone, no matter where they’re located. Between you and them is an invisible network of communication signals that combine to connect your phone with the phones of your friends through the global ether. This extraordinary-made-everyday technology was developed in incremental stages, over almost 200 years. The cell phone of today is the successful result of the imaginations of dozens of ingenious people, four of whom were able to take a good idea (for their time) and make it a great reality.

Humans have always needed to communicate with each other. The problem was how to achieve that goal. Until 1831, communication was limited to the written word and delivered by hand, sometimes taking months or years to get to its final destination. In 1831, Joseph Henry invented the electric telegraph machine; communication across distances now needed only a wire and electricity. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell improved on telegraphic technology to invent the first telephone, the offspring of which currently rests in your purse or pocket.

The Idea

The idea that grounds any innovative effort can come from a modification of an existing circumstance, or a completely novel “Aha!” inspiration. In both circumstances, the idea is only the germ of what could be. What makes it innovative is the hard work and dedicated vision that goes into developing it from the “Aha!” stage into a fully formed reality. The hard work and sweat effort of these four men formed the foundation upon which the modern cell phone is built.

The idea is only the spark. What makes it real is the hard work and dedication that turns into a breakthrough innovation.

Phil McKinney

The Hard Work

Joseph Henry (1797-1878):

Joseph Henry discovered many of the principles of electricity, including the conversion of magnetism into electricity – electromagnetism. Henry grew up poor and lost his father at an early age. Living with his grandmother, he attended school in the mornings and worked in a general store in the afternoons. He worked continuously through his education and was able to focus on his scientific research only after gaining a professor position at Albany Academy in Albany, New York.

It was there, in 1827, that he invented “insulated” wire by covering a bare copper wire with silk from his wife’s petticoat (Aha!). He used the wire in the first telegraph, which conducted an electrical current over a 1.5-mile wire to ring a bell at the other end. That initial telegraph transmission was also the beginning of the electrical age.

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922):

Alexander Graham Bell’s mother was almost deaf, and his father was an expert on the mechanics of voice and elocution. Both his parents encouraged his inquisitive mind, and he eventually joined his father in working with the deaf. After the death of his two brothers (both to tuberculosis), the family moved to Canada, where Bell began working on a “harmonic telegraph.”

Investors encouraged his work but were frustrated by his preoccupation with voice transmission, instead of telegraphic transmission. Joined by the electrician Thomas Watson in 1874, the pair collaborated on voice transmission, with Bell developing the ideas and Watson, the technology. In 1876, the first “phone call” was made by Bell to Watson. For one year, Bell traveled the world, sharing his invention. For the 18 years after that, he battled over 550 court challenges to his patent. None was successful, and the Bell Telephone Company flourished. (Thomas Edison is credited with adding a microphone to Bell’s device, making shouting unnecessary.)

Alan Turing (1912-1954):

At 24, Turing presented the notion that a machine can be capable of computing anything that is computable, the concept which remains the central core of the modern computer. During the War years, he made major contributions to the science of code breaking, one of which was so successful the British government didn’t release the records to the UK National Archives until 2012.

Turing was persecuted for being a homosexual, however, and committed suicide at the age of 42, leaving half a lifetime of potential discoveries and innovations unrealized.

Each of these three men was able to create timely innovations that revolutionized communication in their era and provided a foundation upon which future inventors could build. Each also suffered hardships and setbacks, but remained singularly focused on furthering their ideas and steadfastly committed to the hard work of making them reality.

Timing of Ideas

Although AT&T had established the first wireless communications network in 1946, it consisted of a single transmitting tower and a handful of channels to cover entire metropolitan districts. A “cellular” system was devised in 1947, which consisted of multiple transmitters set in a hexagonal grid across a city, with automatic call handoff from one hexagon to the next. However, the timing was off – there were no frequencies available to implement the system. In the 1960s, Bell Labs researchers were able to connect electronics and computers to finally create a cell-phone system that could work on a large scale.

These researchers realized that the time was finally right for this technology to take shape, and they jumped at the opportunity to make it happen.

Theodore Paraskevakos (1937- ):

In 1972, this Greek engineer working for Boeing in Alabama was the first to combine the telephone with a computer. That year, he filed the paperwork for a device that generated and transmitted digital information (intelligence, data processing, and visual display screens) through a phone line – “Caller ID.” The technology revolutionized the telephone industry just as the industry was technologically preparing to embrace it. By 1978, AT&T’s cellular system was coming online (thanks to authorization from the FCC), and Paraskevakos’s invention (and its progeny) had a found a home.


Technological innovations continue to change the look, capability and capacity of today’s cell phones, but their basic functions remain based on the work of Henry, Bell, Turing and Paraskevakos. Each inventor had an idea that promised innovation, then did the hard work to bring that idea into reality.

The timing was important – the societies in which each man was working were also receptive to the innovations as those innovations were coming to fruition. And although there was luck involved (the introduction of the cellular communication service at the same time as a wireless device capable of accessing it), in the end, success was achieved through focus, hard work and an unwavering belief that the invention itself was worthy of pursuit.

Bonus: Listen to this weeks Killer Innovations Podcast, “Innovating Mobile Broadband In Developing Countries S11 Ep32” to hear how the innovating of mobile communication is still being innovated.

You have ideas and you know the value of hard work. It could be time for your big success. Contact me for help.

BlogCase StudiesdesignPredictionsAlan TuringAlexander Graham BellcommunicationcreativityideaideasInnovationinventorJoseph HenrySmartphone

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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