30 years since Britain’s first mobile phone call

Michael Harrison makes the historic call on 1 January, 1985. Picture: PA
Michael Harrison makes the historic call on 1 January, 1985. Picture: PA
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The man who made the first ever mobile phone call in Britain has recalled the event 30 years on.

Michael Harrison, the son of former Vodafone chairman Sir Ernest Harrison, became the first to test the system when he called his father seconds into 1 January, 1985.

Mr Harrison had secretly left his family’s New Year’s Eve party at their home in Surrey to surprise his father, calling him from London’s Parliament Square on the newly launched Vodafone network.

He made the call from the 11lb (5kg) Transportable Vodafone VT1, which had around 30 minutes of talk time.

When Sir Ernest answered the phone, his son said: “Hi Dad. It’s Mike. This is the first-ever call made on a UK commercial mobile network.”

Mr Harrison recalled that the line was “crystal clear”, and his conversation was complicated only by the shouting of revellers.

He said: “The setting was quite dramatic, standing by the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square surrounded by curious New Year’s Eve revellers.

“I think neither they nor I had even seen a mobile phone before, let alone used one.

“There was also a little bit of cloak and dagger fun sneaking out of the family New Year’s party to get whisked up to London to make the surprise call to my father.

“It was just like a normal telephone call. I thought it might somehow sound quite different talking to somebody on a cellular network, so it was a bit of a surprise that everything was so clear.”

He said he had no idea at the time that the mobile phone would become ubiquitous within a generation.

He said: “I did think that mobile would catch on, but more for people who had to be in contact like that, not as an indispensable part of everyone’s daily life.

“Looking at the size of those first devices, it would have taken a rare imagination to see the true future. Having said that, my father, for years before this first network went live, was often telling us how mobile phones would change the world.”

Days later, a crowd gathered at St Katherine’s Dock in London to watch comedian Ernie Wise make the first public mobile phone call.

Wise took the same device used by Mr Harrison to the event in a 19th-century mail coach to highlight the convenience of the new mobile phone.

The comedian’s call was received at the original Vodafone headquarters in Newbury, Berkshire, where a handful of employees were based in an office above an Indian restaurant.

Such was the demand for a fully portable, cellular phone that more than 2,000 orders had been taken by the Vodafone sales team before Mr Harrison made his call from Parliament Square.

By the end of 1985, more than 12,000 devices had been sold. They were far from portable and cost about £2,000 – roughly £5,000 today. However, the early mobiles were an instantly desirable item, featuring in films and television shows from Wall Street to Only Fools And Horses – despite their cumbersome brick-like design.