mobile phones (4/6)

Peter Snow looks at the untold stories of British scientists and engineers who developed some of the modern world’s most incredible technology.

This week’s instalment focuses on the development of Britain’s mobile-phone network. In the early 1980s, a team of engineers developed software that laid out a system of phone masts around the country. Their work helped launch Vodafone – now one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world.

Peter Snow is on a quest to track down the people who made the UK a world leader in science and industry. He is searching for the unsung heroes of modern British history – the media-shy scientists and engineers whose resourcefulness and determination shaped much of today’s incredible technology.

The series focuses on the true backroom boys of British engineering – men who worked in their bedrooms and backyards to make inspirational breakthroughs in technology and kick-start whole industries. These people battled against the odds, taking on sceptical governments, hostile unions and indifferent corporations to make their vision of tomorrow’s world a reality.

In the third part of the series, Peter charts the history of Britain’s mobile-phone revolution. From clunky, brick-sized objects to the sleek, multipurpose gadgets of today’s world, mobile phones have evolved and expanded beyond all recognition. There are now more mobiles than people in the UK, but 30 years ago the concept of a cellphone network was still very much on the drawing board.

Peter tracks down the team that made it all happen, who worked from a small office behind a curry house in Newbury. Mike Pinches and Dave Target worked for a little-known company called Racal, which specialised in military radios. In 1981, Racal challenged the mighty BT in the race to build Britain’s first mobile-phone network.

Although neither Mike nor Dave knew much about phone systems, they did know an awful lot about radio waves. In order to get their network right at the first time of asking, they put their faith in a new piece of software developed in-house.

This computer programme could predict exactly how radio waves would behave when sent between mobile phones and the masts that would transmit the signals. So whilst BT simply set up its masts at existing telephone exchanges, Racal used its fancy new software to determine the ideal locations in which to put its masts.

The result was Vodafone, a mobile-phone network that soon proved itself to be superior to BT’s Cellnet. The upstart telephone company soon had many more customers than Cellnet and went on to become one of the largest companies in the world. With a value of around £100 billion, Vodafone now operates across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas – but none of this would have been possible without the pioneering genius of some humble inventors.

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