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Vodafone's first phone call

Ernie Wise places the first mobile phone call back in the 1980s

What does the year 1991 mean to you? It was year in which the first Gulf War began; Boris Yeltsin began his first term as President of Russia; Sega published the first Sonic the Hedgehog game; and Tim Berners-Lee showed off this new ‘web page’ thing – but would it ever take off?

“I spent a memorable part of that year driving around the M25 marking an ‘X’ on the map in GSM black spots,” Paul Brereton says.

‘X’ marks the spot. The mobiles on the dashboard looked like outer space

Brereton is a long standing Vodafone employee who remembers the days when going to work often meant shuttling between dozens of small offices spread across Newbury, and the IT department was made up of only two people. “Maybe its just nostalgia, but we really had good parties. We had an annual Spring Ball somewhere nice like Highclere Castle where a kilted bagpiper would pipe in the platter of beef.”

His first job was controlling the stock in the warehouse, where he would literally sign out every car kit and piece of equipment.  No wonder he volunteered get out and about testing the UK’s first digital GSM network.

“They lent me a brand new company car, and drilled seven handsets into the dashboard. Then I drove round and round the M25 for a week making calls, plotting network blackspots on a map (no GPRS in those days!). By the end of the week we were quite bored and decided to drive into London for an unscheduled lunch break.”

Unfortunately an argument about where to place the ‘X’ on the map led to Brereton driving straight into the back of some stationary traffic.

“The police let us off with it, they were more interested in the mobile phones on the dash board as at that time it looked like something from outer space.”

Even so, the crack GSM testing team returned a little sheepishly to Newbury with the front bumper tied on with string, and the front wing sticking out of the boot!

Those days are long gone, but far from forgotten. We’ve added some of the other landmarks to our Facebook Timeline and here’s a little more info behind some of our favourites.

How it all began

It all began above an Indian restaurant with a guy called Gerry and an f’ not a ‘ph’. In November 1983 Gerry Whent cancelled his holiday with only seconds to spare  in order to lead Racal’s bid for the UK’s second mobile phone licence. Then came the hard part – building the network, and deciding what to call the company…

Vodafone or Vodaphone?

Advertising gurus Saatchi and Saatchi were convinced the famous Vodafone ‘f’ would become an iconic part of the company’s brand – but not many of the original directors agreed with them. The name originated from the combination of voice and data services the network would offer – as in voice-data-phone – but CEO Gerry Whent particularly objected to the ‘f’ until Saatchi and Saatchi begged him to reconsider.

“In for a penny, in for a pound – and you can have your flippin’ ‘f’ as well!”

Gerry Whent gave way, and the name Vodafone was launched on March 22nd 1984 in a press release that predicted the new service would be very popular with people on the move, including businessmen, doctors and even “veterinary surgeons”.

Try the Transportable Choosing a phone? How about ‘The Transportable’

Memories of first mobiles are a bit like flashbacks of first love – nostalgic, but a tiny bit embarrassing. Did we ever really adore something so clunky? The answer is yes – and in the mid 1980s many would have killed to get their hands on the Mobira Transportable which weighed in at a mighty 11 pounds (the same as a miniature Daschund) It was better than the other option at the time – a fixed car phone. Luckily demand for a truly mobile phone was so strong that Vodafone started offering the Motorola 8000X in March 1985. The Motorola 8000X was a more manageable 850g, and offered a whopping 30 minutes of talk time.

So what do you think of it so far?

After network trials run from a room in London’s Royal Lancaster Hotel in Bayswater that was kitted out with a giant map and some coloured sticky dots, Vodafone’s leadership team met in a small building near the M4 motorway on Christmas Eve 1984 – and flipped the big switch.

Britain’s first commercial mobile phone call was actually made by Michael Harrison, the son of Vodafone’s first chairman Sir Ernest Harrison, when he called his father at one second past midnight on January 1st 1985.  But it was the press call later that day by the man with the “short, fat, hairy legs” that people remember most.

Comedian Ernie Wise was dressed up in Dickensian costume and riding on a 19th century Mail Coach in Parliament Square when he dialed up. He also called Sir Ernest Harrison back at Vodafone headquarters in Newbury. History hasn’t recorded exactly what Ernie said – but he may have sparked the enduring phrase….“I’m on the train….”

For those first nine days of 1985 Vodafone was the only company with a mobile network in the UK.

There's nothing like your first textDo you remember your first text?

It’s hard to believe but there was a time when no one thought texting would take off. Although texting emerged from the world of ‘paging’ (remember that?) businesspeople weren’t keen on tapping out long communications with tiny little keys – and teenagers were still blissfully mobile-free in those days.

Gradually, however, Vodafone’s Richard Jarvis persuaded manufacturers to add Short Message Service (SMS) to their handsets, and the popularity of texting spread – aided a little bit by a loophole in the Vodafone system that meant texts were first sent for free.

It was Richard Jarvis who received the world’s first ever text message, sent on Christmas Eve 1992 from one of his test engineers, 22 yr old Neil Papworth. The message read: “Happy Christmas”.

Surviving the flood

“We’re so much bigger now,” Paul Brereton says, looking back on his long history with the company, “but actually the things that I originally liked about Vodafone are still true – and I guess that’s why I’m still here.”

“When the Newbury Campus flooded back in 2007 (so badly that to leave by the back entrance meant swimming in waist deep water!) I was one of the essential staff who had to come into work the next day. I was cold, wet and fed up – but then I heard that they’d brought in a food trailer in the car park. I sat outside, ate a bacon butty and listened to a live band hired especially to cheer us up – and I thought that even in a company as big as this, there are still those nice small touches.”

If you’re interested in the chronology of Vodafone’s evolution, head on over to our  Facebook page and check out the Timeline.

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  • Nabs

    No picture of the car?

  • bedfords

    Being an old timer in Vodafone starting in 1988 and still hear I remeber all these things very well.
    Bet nobody remebers that Racal Vodafone as it was in those days actually produced a record, Pretty sure I still have one in my loft, It goes to the tune of D.I.S.C.O but with R.A.C.A.L

  • jonathan chappell

    I Have model number 12 racal vodafone transportable (Nokia Mobira)

  • http://visionaforethought.wordpress.com/ Oflife

    Glad to have found this story! Fond memories of those days, where prior to my first mobile (at the time, the world’s smallest – the British made Excell) I owned three CB radios, a Radio Shack Walkie Talkie, a Ferguson in car, and the other in my bedroom bolted to the shelf under my stereo. Free ‘calls’ and friendly people to talk to and give you ‘crowd sourced’ traffic reports. “Breaker break, 1 4 for a copy!”

    Oh, happy days!

    Anyway, one day in the early pre-mobile 1980s, the landline at our family home in Penwood (near Newbury) rang. It was my best friend Mike who lived in Whitchurch, about 15 miles/minutes way. He said he would pop on over, meaning of course he would be with me in about 15 minutes. Whilst we were still talking on the phone the door bell rang and I said “Hang on.” and walked down stairs to answer the door, leaving the line open.

    You guessed it, there was Mike, grinning. I was dumbstruck, knowing full well he knew no one else in the area where he could have made a call from.

    I asked if he had teleported, or similar quip. He bought his arm around from his back, holding this huge thing, that was the Mobira Transportable referenced above.

    I was totally blown away – having no idea such things existed. He was working at Racal Vodafone back then in Newbury, and of course, such developments were top secret.

    This event has stuck in my mind as one of those few occasions in my lifetime where a technology has been so remarkable, it has almost left me in shock. The second was seeing a Commodore Amiga demo (that my company developed the official dealer demo for), and more recently, the (at the time) tiny iPod nano from Apple. Each remarkable feats of electronic engineering.

    Later this year and/or early next (2014), this will happen again.

    ;-)

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