Why the Mobile Phone Museum’s mission is to preserve the history of handsets
the 2022 Mobile Industry Awards (opens in new tab) (MIAs) celebrate the people, organizations and innovations that have made it another year to remember for the world of mobility. It’s also the twentieth anniversary of the event and it’s fair to say that a lot has changed since 2002.
Over the past two decades, the cell phone has transformed from a device that can call, text and play Snake into pocket-sized computers that are an essential companion for everyday life.
But the history of the mobile phone goes back much further – the first mobile phone call was made in 1985 and the first text message was sent in 1992. This means that the British industry is approaching its 40th anniversary, during which time many devices were manufactured, bought and left.
The Mobile Phone Museum
Technology is characterized by constant change, and it is only natural that consumers are drawn to the latest, flashiest products on the shelves. Devices that are considered obsolete are often shoved in a drawer, gathering dust, never to be remembered again.
But as the mobile industry matures, the legacy becomes even more important. The mobile phone is the most dominant category of consumer electronics in the world, which includes the camera, camcorder, dictaphone, music player, flashlight, compass, wallet, watch, calculator, alarm clock and perhaps for some people the personal computer.
This evolution did not just happen overnight. There’s a long history of innovation in feature sets and design worth documenting and preserving – and that’s where the Mobile Phone Museum comes in handy.
Founder and co-curator Ben Wood has worked in the industry for a stint with Vodafone in the 1990s and is currently an analyst for CCS Insight. His first mobile phone was the Nokia 2110, famous for introducing the softkey, the first entry in what would become an important collection.
Wood, believing that mobile phones were important icons of social history that needed to be saved. Initially, he amassed a significant personal collection — spending a lot of time and money on places like eBay — before deciding to take the next step with the launch of the museum.
“I joined forces with Matt Chatterley (an old industry friend and director of appliances at BT) who had an amazing collection and then Kamil Vacek, a philanthropist from the Czech Republic,” Wood said. TechRadar Pro. “He had the website built and then we signed a five-year deal with Vodafone, which will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first mobile call on his network in 2025. It was all very coincidental.”
This union not only provided Wood with more resources to buy new appliances, but also brought significant exposure to the project. When the Mobile Phone Museum kicked off with a physical event in London last November, it had 2,000 unique devices in its collection, a number that has now risen to 2,471 at the time of writing, with 250 individuals making donations. In total, the museum has more than 5,000 aircraft when duplicates are taken into account.
“There’s no ambition to have every phone in the world — that’s ridiculous,” he says. “There must have been tens of thousands of phones made… But I honestly think you could describe it as the most comprehensive collection of cell phones in the world.
“I think it’s a realistic expectation that we can have 3,000 unique devices within the next six months, and then we have a chance to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.
In search of the holy grail
The museum has devices from all over the world, including Europe, North America and Asia, but admits that things are a bit ‘GSM oriented’ at the moment, which is perhaps unsurprising considering its origins lie in personal collections collected largely in Europe. Wood wants to globalize the collection even further, acquiring more handsets from places like Japan and South Korea, which in the mid-2000s often had very different cell phones than the rest of the world.
The fact that so many people are willing to trust the museum with sometimes very valuable or rare objects is testament to the vision of Wood and his co-curators. The museum currently has a ‘most wanted’ list of rare handsets it plans to include in its collection, such as the Pepsi P1 or the modular Google Project Ara, and since its launch it has managed to manage some of the most coveted.
This includes the Motorola Aura Diamond – a diamond-encrusted handset that launched in 2009 and cost over $5,500 at the time.
“The fact that someone has so much faith in the project gives me a warm feeling in my heart,” says Wood. “They know this is a valuable device and they know it’s protected by us.
“Another ‘holy grail’ was the Nokia N950, a product that never really made it to the market.”
Wood’s interest is in devices from what he calls the “golden age” from 1985 to 2007, when there was a huge variation in form factors and gimmicks. While he is full of appreciation for the possibilities of the modern smartphone, he regrets the lack of experimentation.
“The moment Steve Jobs walked on stage and pulled the iPhone out of his pocket, things got a little boring,” he says, nothing that most modern handsets subscribe to the same design principles.
“However, there are some glimmers of hope with foldable devices that bring a little more design diversity back to the mobile phone.”
It should be easier to get hold of more modern devices, and Woods has touted a model where manufacturers make a donation every time they produce a new device, a bit like when an author gives a copy of their book to the British Library after publication. However, as the collection is not designed to be exhaustive, he believes there is a need for some selectivity, allowing only the most iconic and important devices.
The museum is currently only online, in part because it makes the best use of the organization’s resources, but also because it increases accessibility, allowing anyone around the world to get lost in rabbit holes of exploration through its pages. However, there is still a lot of work to be done to digitize the collection and create listings for everything in the catalog.
“Of the 2,471 phones in our collection, only 550 have photos,” Wood explains. “It costs around £30 to professionally photograph each phone. It’s expensive, but it means we often have better images of the devices than when they launched! I wish we could find the money to do it for all our devices.”
Wood is convinced that the online model works, but admits that the ultimate ambition is to have a physical exhibition in time for the 40th anniversary of the first phone call in 2025 in a ‘signature venue’ such as the Design Museum, the Science Museum or the Victoria. & Albert (V&A) Museum.
The next event on the calendar is this week’s 2022 MIAs in London, inviting guests to donate or recycle their old appliances.
“This could be the event that will bring our collection above 2,500,” Wood suggests.
Also important is the educational element of the project, with the museum entering schools to inspire future engineers and designers and to illustrate the positive elements of mobility amid wider concerns about safety, bullying and cybersecurity.
“The cell phone is the most productive consumer device in the world, and it’s becoming more and more nostalgic items,” he says.
“Phones have a bad reputation sometimes, but we can come in and talk about the incredible design and technology story and how the UK has been a pioneer in the field. It’s quite exciting to explain to people why mobile phones are a good thing.