Calling From Where?
Friday, January 8, 1982
At the top of the Washington Monument, a telephone is ringing. It may be the death knell of what, if anything, remains of civilization in this city.
In a year or so the phone may be ringing up there all the time, not to mention in saunas, golf carts, hot air balloons, the middle of fox hunts, lovemaking, tennis and whatever else you may have done believing that you were safe from ringing phones.
The reason is the Motorola Dyna T-A-C portable radio telephone system, one pound and 12 ounces of ultra-high frequency cellular system radio that is now being test-marketed to 100 selected customers in the Baltimore-Washington area who can afford the $190-a-month rental.
It doesn't work like a radio, though. No "overs" or "10-4s" or any of that. It works like a phone, with simultaneous two-way transmission, "duplex" as they say in the trade. With the aerial sticking out the top, it looks like a very small walkie-talkie.
"Your phone is ringing," says Suzanne Klein of Oklahoma City, turning away from a fine view of a brown winter Mall and a white Capitol at the sound of it, which is cheery as morning's own little bluebird.
"Mr. Watson, come here, I want you," says the guy carrying the phone when he answers it -- that line being Alexander Graham Bell's first words on his first phone. Legend has it that Bell wouldn't have one in his house because life would be hell if people could just call you all the time.
"Hey, can I call my husband in Oklahoma City?" says Klein, when the conversation is over. She can and does, passing on the information that she'll be taking a later plane home. People stop. People stare.
"It ain't got no wires!" shouts Steve Cotov of San Diego.
The guy who brought it up here calls literary agent Esther Newberg in New York. Newberg talks on telephones the way Heifetz plays violins. Nevertheless, she is appalled.
"The top of the Washington Monument?" she says. "Do you realize how dangerous that is?"
"If you can start getting phone calls anywhere, all the Type A personalities in the world will be having heart attacks at the age of 31," says Newberg.