History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

The phone call

Published: April 5, 2012 at 7:51 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

It's the late 1980s, and a group of young business executives are in the changing room at an exclusive private sports club in London following a game of squash.


A mobile phone rings.

"No, it's OK love, I can talk," says the man answering the call. "What? You're out shopping, are you? That's nice."

The others in the changing room exchange grins with one another.

"You want to order that new carpet? Persian? Yeah, go on. Why not? And some curtains to match them as well? Three thousand pounds? Well that sounds reasonable. Sure, go right ahead."

More smiles among the other men listening.

"And then you're going to the travel agent's? Excellent. New York by Concorde? Absolutely, love. And make sure they book us into a really nice hotel as well. Tell them we want the very best."

The man's audience are now turning from smiles to expressions of mild envy.

"Oh, yes," he continues his conversation. "The new conservatory. I'd forgotten all about that. Well the builders are a very reputable firm. If the quote is ten grand, then I'm happy to pay that. Tell them to get started as soon as they can."

The listeners exchange glances of amazement.

"OK sweetheart, I'll see you later. Love you too! 'Bye!" says the man, ending the call.

He looks at the other men and says, "Whose phone is this anyhow?"

The story

I think we can just about get away with this one as a historical joke, now that yuppies and the 1980s are fading into distant memory.

You tell the young people nowadays and they just don't believe you when you say that once upon a time there was no such thing as mobile phones, and that when they first came along they were usually only fitted in cars, and that the earliest hand-held ones were the size of house-bricks.

Perhaps the quintessential movie of 1980s yuppiedom is 1987's Wall Street. Michael Douglas got himself a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of ruthless financier Gordon Gekko. The two things everyone remembers about the film, though, are Gekko's aside that "lunch is for wimps" and his enormous mobile phone. In 1987 this was a symbol of how important and wealthy he was. Such was the speed of handset development in the following years that it very soon made the film look horribly dated, which is a shame.

The history of mobile phones is complicated and ranges across several countries, but the key turning point in their history was the development of cellular networks in the 1970s in both Japan and the United States. Calls could be transferred from one cell to the next as the user travelled, so the conversation was uninterrupted. This is why almost every other English-speaking country calls them cellphones.

In Britain, the early market leaders were Vodafone, which partly developed its system from military communications technology, and British Telecom. The first true mobile phone call in the UK was made by Vodafone on January 1 1985. For most of the rest of the 1980s, a mobile phone was an expensive status symbol, the preserve of young urban professionals - yuppies.


Yuppies were big everywhere in the eighties, but nowhere more so than in the USA, where they generated a rich seam of humour. Did you hear the one about the yuppie who went into work after he got back from vacation? He's proudly showing a workmate the thousand-dollar price tag on his new designer tie. "You idiot," laughs the other guy. "You could have bought that here in New York for twice the price!"


Sponsored content