The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) presented the mobile phone pioneers who laid the groundwork for today’s smartphone with engineering’s top award during a Feb. 19 ceremony in Washington.
The NAE honored Martin Cooper, Joel Engel, Richard Frenkiel, Thomas Haug, and Yoshihisa Okumura with the Charles Stark Draper Prize, which annually recognizes engineers whose work has proven invaluable to society, and is considered the Nobel Prize of engineering. The prize includes a $500,000 award.
The concept of a cell phone network grew out of AT&T and Bell Labs, where Joel Engel and Richard Frenkiel were among the first engineers to develop a design for the first cellular telephone system.
Other contributions came from Yoshihisa Okumura of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Basic Research Laboratories in Japan, who studied signal propagation in urban, suburban and rural areas, and Thomas Haug of Nordic Mobile Telephony, a key figure in the standardization of cell networks across countries.
Martin Cooper, who led Motorola’s mobile phone research, unveiled the first hand-held cell phone in 1973.
“We anticipated an experience that matched, or even exceeded, landline telephones,” said Engel, who had previously worked on a satellite stabilization system at the MIT Instrumentation Lab, later renamed as Draper Laboratory. “The ability to roam to distant cities and to be able to make and receive calls was part of the original plan, but we thought of it as a business service and certainly did not anticipate its popularity.”
The Charles Stark Draper Prize was established and endowed by Draper Laboratory in 1988 in tribute to its founder, Dr. Charles Stark Draper, who pioneered inertial navigation.
“More often than not, a technology’s true impact on society is not understood until decades after its development, when it is taken for granted as part of our daily routine,” said Draper President James Shields. “Doc understood that long-term impact is a true measure of engineering success. By awarding the prize to engineers who have demonstrated a similar level of accomplishment and innovation in their own respective fields, we seek to publicly recognize those whose work has impacted daily life, and significantly improved the well-being and freedom of humanity.”