Car phone in 1957?

I was watching a MST3K horror movie last night Beginning Of The End, 1957. The female lead is a reporter and early in the film, reaches under the dash and pulls up a traditional handset with cord. Apparently she connects to an operator, gives the number she is wanting to reach and is connected to her editor (who apparently was in a distant city). Was this some kind of radio connection to the local switchboard? How many local switchboards would have been so equipped? Maybe used the same system the local police would be using for their radios?
It really surprised me, I thought the early eighties “bag phones” were the beginning of mobile phones.
BTW, this wasn’t presented as something futuristic.

It was set in Illinois, the part with the mountains, the mountains that look so amazingly like southern California.

Yes, that’s exactly how it worked. You connected to an operator at the telephone company over a radio frequency and they would patch you into a landline. The first mobile phones worked like a two-way radio. You pressed a switch on the handset to talk and released it to listen. The first mobile phone was used in Sweden in 1946.

Yes, they had mobile phones in 1957, but not using cellular technology that we know today. From Wikipedia:

In 1949, AT&T commercialized Mobile Telephone Service. From its start in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1946, AT&T then introduced Mobile Telephone Service to one hundred towns and highway corridors by 1948. Mobile Telephone Service was a rarity with only 5,000 customers placing about 30 000 calls each week. Calls were set up manually by an operator and the user had to depress a button on the handset to talk and release the button to listen. The call subscriber equipment weighed about 80 lb.

Subscriber growth and revenue generation were hampered by the constraints of the technology. Because only three radio channels were available, only three customers in any given city could make mobile telephone calls at one time. Mobile Telephone Service was expensive, costing 15 USD per month, plus 0.30 to 0.40 USD per local call, equivalent to about 176 USD per month and 3.50 to 4.75 per call in 2012 USD.

Those were radio phones and they existed as early as the 1940’s as a commercial service. They worked fine in defined areas but they depended on a dedicated base station to work. They were also expensive and not very scalable to the masses. The concept isn’t that hard. It is just a radio connection to a landline.

Those are now known as pre-cellular mobile phone services. True cellular service is a lot more complicated and scalable in both geography and the number of people it can serve at a time.

I poked around a bit on google and found that car phone services actually started a bit earlier than I thought. It turns out that it started in 1946 in St. Louis. The original system weighed 80 lbs and had 3 channels for all users in the entire city.

Illinois Bell started the service in the Chicago area later that same year.

It looks like car phone services started taking off in the late 40s and early 50s, mostly being installed in limousines and commercial vehicles. The technology was featured in the 1954 Humphrey Bogart movie Sabrina. It was something fairly new and trendy at the time.

From here:

There’s a bunch of info on that site.

Thanks! Great link.

I have it on good authority that Radar O’Reilly used his Army radio to get another soldier in Japan to patch him into the long distance telephone system, so that Hawkeye Pierce could place an order for ribs and cole slaw from a barbecue place in Chicago. To be shipped to Korea during the war. Simple stuff today, but worthy of a thirty minute episode in the 70s. And he forgot to order the cole slaw.

That was a gimmick used in a early 1970’s tv show Emergency! The paramedics had a radio/telephone link to a doctor at the hospital. Allowing them to send the patient’s vital signs to the doctor and begin medical care enroute to the ER.

Cutting edge technology for the early 1970’s.

I seem to recall James Bond having a car phone in some of the early Sean Connery movies.

A few months ago I did some googling for the history of car phones after watching (for the umpteenth time, but I never researched it before) the Andy Griffith episode that featured a car phone. That episode was from 1966 (and the phone was still treated like an amazing novelty.) Here is an interesting discussion related to that.

Burke’s Law, which started in 1963, had the gimmick that the chief of detectives was a millionaire who went to cases in his chauffeured Rolls Royce. He sat in the back, naturally, usually with a beautiful women, and just when they would start get friendly the car phone would ring and call him onto a case. The show was a comedy-drama with over-the-top plots and every suspect a big-name star slumming to have fun. That tongue-in-cheek quality makes it one of the few early 60s shows to stand up today.

The first car two way obviously could be acoustically coupled to a telephone by the operator… (acoustic coupling means putting the microphone near a speaker, and the speaker near a microphone…)

The first truly mobile two-way radio was developed in Australia in 1923 by Senior Constable Frederick William Downie of the Victorian Police. The Victoria Police were the first in the world to use wireless communication in cars, putting an end to the inefficient status reports via public telephone boxes which had been used until that time. The first sets took up the entire back seat of the Lancia patrol cars.[4]

Thanks to all, lots of interesting info and links,

Another data point: in the 1954 movie Sabrina, Linus Larrabee uses a car phone.

Somewhat related, in 1952 Louis Mattar made a coast to coast non-stop road trip in a specially designed car. He had a car phone installed so that he could call ahead from city to city to make arrangements on whatever he and his crew might be in need of.

I think there was usually had to be a very large antenna on the car, much like with the CB radios that were popular in the early 1980s.

Sometime around 1987 or 88 I was traveling and got an upgrade on my rental car, so they rented me a silver grey Thunderbird hardtop with a phone in the dash! I thought it was the coolest thing ever, though I only used it a couple of times.

I’m here to tell you that in the 1970s, some rural numbers still couldn’t be direct dialed, and occasionally on days like Mother’s day, when the phone lines were clogged, you had to dial the operator and request a connection, and were put in a line. Your number and the number you wanted were taken down, and when there was a free line, you were called back. The operator requested that you keep it brief in consideration of others.

As for non-direct dials, they were pretty much the same-- you called the operator, and requested the number you wanted. Sometimes it was called immediately, but sometimes you had to wait, in which case, you were told to hang up and wait for them to call you back.

There were also only a few countries you could direct-dial then; all the others, you called the operator, gave them the number, your number, and when they got a line through, they called you back. Depending on the country, it might take a while, because not all counties had 24-hr phone service. I know this, because my father and mother used to travel “behind the iron curtain” a lot.

People old enough to have a car phone in the 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s would be accustomed to operator assisted dialing. I’m not sure when automated direct-dialing came into wide use, but in the 1970s, my parents talked about it like it was something pretty newfangled. All local numbers were direct-dial, but they often stop to discuss whether an in-state call was direct dial, when it seemed to me like there should be no question.

I also remember a few chicken littles regarding direct dial-- children were going to be using the phone willy-nilly and running up huge phone bills. Never happened. At least not until 1-900 numbers.

True, but the main cutting-edge concept in Emergency! was the very idea of paramedics. The whole concept of providing medical care out in the field was a novelty in the civilian world as late as the 1970s; in fact, a paper published in 1966 demonstrated that front line soldiers in the Vietnam War had a better survival rate than people who got into car accidents on the California freeways, due essentially to what MASH* depicted: field medics giving immediate care, and swift transport to more advanced trauma units. (cite)

To bring this back around to the TV show:

To get this back on topic, here’s a great archive of Usenet posts about non-dialable points and inward operators from back in the late 1980s:

Date: 7 Aug 89 22:53
Subject: Non-Dialable Points


More interesting is the system in Shoup, Idaho.  Call 208 555-1212 and ask for
the Shoup Salmon River store -- you'll be told to call Shoup 24F3. It is what's
called a "Farmer's Line," and it's sort of a single magneto drop with several
stations.  The people out there maintain the line themselves.  It's single wire
ground return.  The people on the line call each other with coded ringing (and
being allowed to make local calls is one of the things that makes a farmer's
line different from a toll station). They get incoming calls with coded ringing
from the operator at a cord board.  They contact the cord board to get out with
a loooooong ring.  The board handling calls is an AT&T board.

Radio based phone connection still operates. Here is Oz the Flying Doctor service (RFDS) maintained a shortwave radio network for decades that spanned a large fraction of the continent. It was possible to purchase a radio transceiver with appropriate frequency coverage and license it to use the RFDS network. The base stations would provide a phone patch service to anyone with such a radio. A common thing was to install such a radio in a 4x4 when travelling. Mostly useful for emergency contact, it was possible to book a phone connection, and thus be able to phone home. My father had such a radio fitted to a couple of his 4x4s. The network is no longer operated by the RFDS, but still exists, and the ability to make phone calls remains. Of course the various satellite systems (Iridum, Inmarsat’s BGAN, Optus) have largely replaced a basic radio network for many uses, but they are not as cheap, and there seems to remain solid support for the simple radio net.

Worth stating the near obvious point. Calls on any of these networks was not in the slightest private. Indeed you would reasonably assume that many dozens of ears would be listening.