New Year’s Eve mobile phone call that made history and started a new era

Big Ben

Thirty years ago, the son of Vodafone’s former chairman Sir Ernest Harrison secretly ducked out of the family’s New Year’s Eve party.

A few hours later, just after midnight and standing in the shadow of Big Ben in Parliament Square, he called home to wish his father a Happy New Year – and that was the UK’s first ever mobile phone call.

Michael Harrison had dragged the 5kg (11lbs) briefcase-sized prototype phone with him to make the call in a dummy run hours before comedian Ernie Wise was due to make the first official mobile phone call from St Katherine’s Docks in London.

In the call, Michael Harrison said: “Hi Dad. It’s Mike. This is the first-ever call made on a UK commercial mobile network.” On the other end of the line, champagne corks popped and photographers recorded the moment.

The next day, Wise – dressed in top hat and period costume – made the first official mobile call to Vodafone’s then headquarters above an Indian restaurant in Newbury, Berkshire.

Harrison’s Vodafone, a start-up from inside the wider Racal defence and electronics company, had beaten BT Cellnet to start the UK’s first mobile network by just nine days.

By the end of 1985, more than 12,000 mobile phones had been sold for about £2,000 each (which works out at about £5,000 nowadays after taking inflation into account). The phones were marketed in Saatchi & Saatchi adverts featuring Ferrari-driving businessmen with the slogan: “You can be in when you’re out.”

Today, Vodafone has 438m customers around the world. The UK mobile phone industry made more £15.6bn in 2013, with more than 83m people signed up – far more than the UK’s population of 64m.

Those users made 134bn calls and sent around 130bn texts last year.

Powered by article was written by Rupert Neate, for The Guardian on Wednesday 31st December 2014 15.30 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010