Why is it called “cellular” technology?

In another article, I asked “why are they called ‘cell phones?'” I suppose that article and this one have similar stories to them. However, I thought it would be good to come back to this topic.

What does “cellular” even mean?

The word “cellular” comes from the Latin word “cellula” and it means “little chamber.” Until fairly recently, the term was used for the little rooms in monasteries where monks lived. This helps us understand why prison rooms are called “cells” as well. The root term going back thousands of years refers to small, isolated, covered spaces.

The word “cell” dates back to 1665 when scientist Robert Hook discovered the structure of plants when looked at through a microscope. He thought the regular structure of a cork looked like the little rooms where monks lived, so he called them “cells.” It seems to have taken several hundred more years for the term to actually make it into the general populace.

In the 20th century, the word “cell” was first used for self-contained batteries, especially when stacked up next to each other like plant cells. In this case the term mostly referred to the fact that cells were complete entities, since batteries had been sort of freeform things before that.

Cellular phones and the cellular network

You could make a phone call from a car or a boat as early as the 1940s. In order to do this, you needed a radio and a contract with a mobile operator. You called the mobile operator and told them where to call, and they did. It was not a great solution. Engineers started looking for a way that people could make mobile phone calls without an operator, and for people to get mobile phone calls (which was much harder with the old system as well.)

The key to making it happen was some research done at Motorola. Several scientists including Martin Cooper and John Mitchell worked on a really revolutionary idea. What if a phone could attach itself to an automatic radio repeater, and when you got too far from that one repeater, it could attach itself to another instantly? What if all that could happen without the person on the phone even knowing it?

They called the concept “cellular” telephony.In order for this to work, you would need a lot of self-contained radio repeaters. The repeaters needed to be placed close enough that their signal footprints overlapped. Once again they thought of plant cells. Plant cells grow into each other to become one strong thing, like these cork cells.

And so, they called it “cellular.” From that, we got terms like “cell phone.” The word which originally meant a place for a monk to sleep alone now meant a technology that let us all stay connected.

What comes after cellular technology?

I’m sure there are some people working on that question right now. We’ve already taken the next step past cellular, which is cross-network telephony. If you have it set up right, your phone automatically jumps from cellular to Wi-Fi whenever it can. Using Wi-Fi for calling frees up the cellular network and brings even better quality indoors. There’s also satellite telephony, where a phone communicates directly with a satellite overhead. It’s possible that at some point in the future we will all communicate this way.

Another fringe possibility is peer networking. You’re starting to see this with some consumer products. Instead of using a cellular network, each phone connects with phones near it. As long as one phone can get through to a cellular network, they all can. If you’re in a city full of people, peer networking could help you make calls from person to person. It could happen without the cellular network working at all. I think that’s a long way off but anything’s possible.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.