Author Archives: Kathleen McIlvenna, curatorial secondment

Batteries not included

What’s the one gadget you couldn’t live without? Your mobile phone, PDA, music player, game console – or all those things combined in a sleek smartphone?

No matter which device you choose, the one thing that all these gadgets couldn’t exist without is their rechargeable battery - the beating heart of the modern world.

The first rechargeable battery was the Lead-Acid battery, invented in 1859 by Gaston Planté, but it was the Nickel Cadmium battery invented in 1899 by Waldemar Jungar that really paved the way for the future of mobile technology.

The very early mobile phones used Nickel Cadmium batteries, but the batteries were so enormous they had to be stored in the boot of a car. As demand increased improvements were made and soon you were able to carry your battery around with you in a handy carry case.

Vodafone transportable mobile phone, 1985. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

By 1983 the first stand alone mobile phone had been developed using the Nickel Cadmium battery the Motorola Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage (DynaTAC 8000X). By 1989 they could even fit in your pocket – though it might have to be quite a large pocket.

Motorola MicroTAC cellular telephone.

Motorola MicroTAC cellular telephone, 1993. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Today the battery that probably powers the phone in your pocket and the laptop on your desk is a Lithium battery, most likely a Lithium-Ion battery.

Introduced in 1990 these batteries have emerged as the best energy to weight ratio, meaning they last longer but weigh less, and they have enabled mobile phones to become smaller and smarter.

Sony Ericson T68i mobile phone, 2002. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The iUnit concept car in our Plasticity exhibition is proof that in the future lithium batteries could be used to power even more aspects of our mobile lives.

Toyota i-Unit concept car, 2005 (Science Museum website)

The year of the Rabbit

Whilst doing some research into the history of the mobile phone in Britain I made a discovery in the Museum’s collections that took me back in time. Back to when a pay phone was a useful piece of street furniture and the iPhone was but a twinkle in Steve Job’s eye.

The year - 1992.
The discovery - the Rabbit Phone.

The Rabbit Phone is a glitch in our technological past – a transitional invention that represented where technology was going, but not how the British public wanted to get there.

Rabbit telepoint telephone by Hutchison Personal Communications Ltd, 1993. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It was one of a number of telepoint services that were available between 1989 and 1994, that operated on the basis of a domestic cordless phone.

You could carry around your lightweight Rabbit Phone but it would only work when you were within 100-200 metres of a Rabbit base station, advertised by a friendly white and blue sign posted in windows and on walls. What added to the frustration was that these phones could only make calls whilst on the move. Not very practical…

Rabbit Telepoint Sign in New Barnet Station, 2002. (BBC website)

Unsurprisingly the Rabbit Phone only attracted 10,000 subscribers and the network was closed on 31 December 1993. As a replacement, customers were offered an Orange mobile phone on the cellular network.

The Rabbit Phone could be considered one of history’s technological turkeys, but I choose to see the Rabbit Phone as a symbol of the mobile phone’s success rather than telepoint’s failure.

The rise and dominance of the mobile phone was so fast that it took everyone by surprise. Out of date before it was in proper use, the Science Museum’s Rabbit Phone is virtually unused.

Today telepoint’s legacy lives on, echoed in the wifi internet networks we now have in trains, cafes and bars.

Wifi Zone sign, 2003 - present (BBC website)

As this recent article in The Guardian shows these hotspots are becoming an increasingly useful and important part of our daily lives.