It may be hard to believe, but the personal mobile phone (aka the cell phone) has been around long enough that early examples are now considered “vintage” and can be highly collectible.
Mobile telephone service has existed for far longer than most realize: it just wasn’t personally portable, and it wasn’t always wireless. There’s more than one story about Model-T-era motorists pausing in their journeys to tap into existing telephone lines to make their calls. Germany offered phone service on some trains as early as the 1920s, but calls were usually limited to first-class passengers. In 1946, Bell System introduced the MTS (Mobile Telephone System). It weighed 80 pounds, occupied a substantial piece of an automobile’s real estate, was too expensive for the ordinary citizen, and offered limited service. Refinements through the ’50s and ’60s managed to pare weights down to about 20 pounds while expanding service, but car phones remained outside the means of most.
It was not until April 3, 1973, that what we now know as the “personal mobile phone” was introduced to the world when Motorola researcher and executive Martin Cooper made the first wireless call from a handheld device, a prototype DynaTAC. For the next decade, both the phone and the analog cellular system necessary to carry the wireless signals remained under development before becoming available to the public in 1983. Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X was the first in a series of commercially available portable cell phones that were eventually considered obsolete by the mid-’90s as smaller, lighter, less expensive phones came to market, and as analog service gave way to digital. Affectionately nicknamed “the Brick” by original users, DynaTACs were about the same size and weight as, well, bricks, and are popular among collectors today. In fact, several specimens recently sold at online auctions for from $40 to $259 – some had original packaging and accessories – while a stand-alone 1983 DynaTAC 8000X Rapid Charger (as opposed to the standard model) fetched $333.55.
The Nokia 8110 is another popular phone among collectors. Designed for the business market, it was one of the smallest and lightest weight phones available in 1996 and featured a sliding cover that accentuated the curvature of the case, earning the phone the nickname “banana phone”. A modified version was featured in the sci-fi classic film The Matrix (1999). Sometimes referred to as the “Matrix” phone, one was recently up for bids online, and fetched $100.
Of course, no collection would be complete without the inclusion of the first generation Apple iPhone 2G. The original iPhone redefined what a smartphone should be: sleek, fast, intuitive. And though the newest iPhones offer many more features than the original, they can never be 1st. For collectors, that’s the prime reason they’re willing to pay several hundred dollars for examples in good condition, and even more if the specimen is like new with all the original packaging, instructions, and accessories. One recent example that had minor scuffs and scratches from use, but still possessed its original packaging garnered a final bid of $372.00.
There are many more phones that serious collectors have on their wish lists – from the Nokia 808 Purview with the 41(!)-megapixel camera to 1982’s Mobira Senator, a self-contained car phone that could be carried around, except that it weighed almost 22 pounds – but you don’t have to deal with actual phones to make a little extra cash. All you need is a supply of Victoria’s Secret PINK dog with bell cell-phone charms: one recently sold for $72.00 after fairly active bidding!
Would you like to discover more about collectible cell phones? Check out the following list of resources, and
“The Cellphone: The History and Technology of the Gadget That Changed the World,” by Guy Klemens (link to Amazon)
“Constant Touch: A Global History of the Mobile Phone,” by Jon Agar (link to Amazon)
7 phones classified as collector’s items that are worth serious money (PhoneArena) – Overlaps other lists, but great descriptions and photos.
1950s Car Phone Mobile Office (YouTube) – This clip from Sabrina (1954) demonstrates what “mobile phone” meant pre-1973.
The Curious Case of the 103-Year-Old Car Phone (Wired) – It just wasn’t Lars Magnus Ericsson who had one.
The First Car Telephones (WB6NVH.com) – Probably a lot more info than most need to know, but interesting.
The History of Mobile Phones from 1973 to 2008: The Phones That Made It ALL Happen (KnowYourMobile.com) – Covers almost two dozen early models.
A Visual History of the Mobile Phone (Business Insider) – Engaging survey of 70 years of phone history.