The Secret Genius of Modern Life episode 9 – Smartphone

The Secret Genius of Modern Life episode 9 - Smartphone

The Secret Genius of Modern Life episode 9 – Smartphone – In today’s interconnected society, smartphones are more than just a communication device; they are an integral part of our daily lives. With a staggering six billion smartphones in use around the globe, these devices have revolutionized the way we interact with the world. In an exclusive feature, Hannah delves into the heart of the electronics industry, gaining unprecedented access to industry titan Samsung. Through this lens, she explores the groundbreaking innovations that have transformed a mere concept into a ubiquitous reality.



Her journey takes her back to the origins of the mobile phone, where she uncovers the unexpected influence of a 1940s comic book icon, Dick Tracy. This character, with his futuristic wristwatch, unknowingly set the stage for the first mobile phone. Hannah’s exploration doesn’t stop there; she dives into the pivotal moments of technological advancements, such as the birth of the digital camera. This invention, while groundbreaking, ironically led to one of the most significant commercial miscalculations in the tech industry.

The Secret Genius of Modern Life episode 9 – Smartphone

Further, Hannah Fry sheds light on a peculiar yet enlightening event in 2010 – a sausage craze in South Korea. This seemingly unrelated phenomenon offers surprising insights into the development and refinement of touchscreen technology, illustrating how everyday occurrences can influence high-tech advancements. Through these stories and discoveries, Hannah not only charts the historical trajectory of the smartphone but also paints a vivid picture of its profound impact on our society.

The Secret Genius of Modern Life episode 9 – Smartphone

The Secret Genius of Modern Life episode 9 – Smartphone- The Remarkable Evolution of Smartphone Technology

In the most recent installment of BBC Two’s enlightening series “The Secret Genius of Modern Life,” presenter Hannah Fry peeled back the curtain on the technological marvel that is the smartphone. With unprecedented access inside electronics leader Samsung and insights from tech experts, Dr. Fry revealed the sequence of extraordinary innovations that have transformed smartphones from simplistic communication devices into indispensable tools integrated into every facet of our modern existence.

Our Wondrous Wireless Companions

It’s difficult to imagine functioning in the modern world without a smartphone within arm’s reach. The pocket-sized rectangles of metal, plastic and glass have revolutionized how over six billion humans interact, discover, create and thrive. How exactly did smartphones evolve from bulky devices solely meant for calls into a central pillar of 21st century life?

The history of mobile communication technology stretches back to the early 20th century, with the first handheld radio transceiver developed in 1940. However, the conceptual spark for the smartphone was lit decades earlier – in the panels of a hugely popular comic strip.

Inspiration Derived from Science Fiction

Decades before the first true smartphone, the basic concept was envisioned in the American comic strip Dick Tracy. First published in 1931, it featured the adventures of the eponymous detective aided in his crime busting escapades by a host of clever gadgets. This included his wrist radio – a two-way communication device strapped to his wrist.

Several names stand out in the timeline tracing early development from the realms of fiction into tangible technological innovation. We owe the very term “cell phone” to Martin Cooper, an engineer at Motorola, who built and demonstrated the first portable wireless telephone system in 1973.

The Early Days of Mobile Communication

Cooper’s first functional cell phone was an incredible achievement but a far cry from the powerful pocket devices today. It offered just half an hour of battery life and took a full 10 hours to charge! The hefty handset also cost nearly $4,000 at the time.

Early mobile phones were referred to as “car phones” – bulky devices intended just for voice calls inside vehicles. The true potential of mobile communication technology remained confined to the pages of science fiction through the 70’s and 80’s.

The First True Smartphone Emerges

While various manufacturers released improved mobile phone models with some bridge capabilities during the 90’s, a truly disruptive innovation finally emerged in 1994. The Simon Personal Communicator by IBM is widely regarded as the first smartphone, incorporatingfeatures like a touch screen interface, apps, email and fax.

Simon was far ahead of its time but found limited commercial success due to prohibitively high pricing. However, touch technology first featured on Simon paved the way for the defining smartphone of the new millennium.

The Rapid Rise of Smartphone Ubiquity

While IBM’s Simon brought together the basic blueprint for a smartphone in 1994, adoption was limited to business users willing to pay a premium. The technology caught up with the vision in the 2000s as slimmer, more powerful smartphones with widespread appeal emerged.

Cameras, Connectivity and Computing Converge

Three crucial developments ignited explosive adoption at the turn of the millennium – the addition of cameras turning phones into digital recording devices, expanding 3G connectivity and mobile operating systems enabling computing capabilities.

The first commercial camera phones released in 2000 instantly expanded the utility of mobile devices. Sharp and Samsung led the way with releases in Japan and South Korea respectively. While image quality was dismal by today’s standards, the very ability to click pictures on the go fuelled demand. By 2005, over half of all mobile phones shipped globally had built-in cameras.

While the internet had been around for a while, access was still predominantly limited to desktop computers with broadband connectivity confined to households. The rollout of faster 3G data networks between 2001-07 finally untethered internet access. Surfing the web, checking emails, downloading music/videos could now be done wirelessly from virtually any location.

While the hardware advances expanded functionality tremendously, the development of refined mobile operating systems is what truly completed the framework for delivering the modern smart experience. The launch of PalmOS, BlackBerry OS and Windows Mobile meant phones were no longer just calling and texting devices but actual handheld computers.

The Android Difference

Up until 2007, the smartphone market featured early offerings running proprietary operating systems and retailing at high costs, limiting adoption to business professionals. The landscape changed virtually overnight as Google entered the arena with Android.

Based on the Linux kernel and encompassing open source stacks, Android was designed specifically for touchscreen mobile devices. The first Android smartphone released in September 2008 – the HTC Dream. Most importantly, Google’s business model involved providing the OS to manufacturers for free and generating revenue from ad sales through Google Mobile Services bundled with Android.

This triggered a dramatic smartphone boom led by Asian manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Xiaomi offering devices running a cutting-edge OS at bargain prices. Over a decade later, Android dominates global market share with over 85% as of 2022. The smartphone had wel and truly arrived!

Sensors and Multi-Touch Add Versatility

While 3G and OS capabilities realised smartphones’ functional potential, the form factor and input technology underwent crucial improvements in the late 2000s to facilitate effortless usage. Enter touchscreens with multi-touch, proximity and motion sensors.

The Synaptics Onyx concept phone at CES 2009 wowed audiences with its smooth scrolling and rotational gestures responsive display. Capacitive screens with pinpoint accuracy soon replaced the earlier resistive touch tech seen on devices like the Palm Treo.

The Responsiveness Revolution

Besides display advancements, accelerometers and ambient light sensors gave smartphones the ability to align screen orientation based on how the device was held along with adaptive brightness. Surprisingly, a pivotal advancement was also spurred by a national obsession in South Korea – sausage consumption!

As home to tech giants like Samsung and LG, South Koreans take their food and phones quite seriously. So when cheap frozen sausages became a staple in 2010, widespread cases of sore thumbs from having to scroll hard on resistive touchscreens spurred manufacturers into developing more responsive capacitive displays.

The iPhone Moment

While the building blocks for delivering a true smartphone experience fell into place by early 2010, public perception still centered around mobile devices for communication rather than utility. That changed virtually overnight with the unveiling of the Apple iPhone on June 29, 2007.

While not the first smartphone by any means, the first iPhone reimagined the very concept of what smart mobile devices could achieve. Featuring a stunning display with multi-touch, integrated storage, internet connectivity and a robust app ecosystem, the iPhone spearheaded widespread public embrace of technology previously limited largely to business environments.


The smartphone revolution has utterly transformed modern existence for over six billion users globally. In just over three decades, mobile devices have evolved from being mere wireless communication tools into powerful pocket-sized computing devices integrated into every facet of daily life.

As explored in BBC Two’s docuseries “The Secret Genius of Modern Life”, the history of smartphone advancement has been driven by pioneering inventors, responsive technology and relentless human creativity. From early visionaries like Martin Cooper to tech trailblazers like Steve Jobs, some of the brightest minds dedicated decades towards crafting tools tailored for common users.

The world’s largest electronics companies like Samsung have integrated cutting-edge display, battery, biometrics and photography capabilities into impressively compact shells. Software enhancements deliver intuitive interfaces, apps for specialized functionality and AI-assisted experiences. 5G data speeds have enhanced real-time responsiveness by an order of magnitude.

While early smartphone owners would have found modern conveniences like streaming HD video, e-commerce from home and mobile payments unimaginable, users today are already awaiting the next boundary of innovation. Perhaps expandable screens, holographic interfaces or neural link connectivity will redefine the future of smart mobility. One thing is guaranteed – the incredible pace of smartphone technological advancement shows no signs of slowing!

FAQ – The Secret Genius of Modern Life episode 9

Q: How did the concept of a smartphone first emerge?

A: While early wireless telephone communication technology emerged in the 1940s, the first conceptual blueprint of a smartphone was seen years earlier in the Dick Tracy comic strip featuring the detective’s wrist radio.

Q: What fuelled initial widespread adoption in the early 2000s?

A. Key hardware innovations like phone cameras, expanding 3G networks and refined operating systems evolved phones into portable computing devices spurring a surge in popularity.

Q: How crucial was the Android operating system?

A: Android’s free licensing to manufacturers coupled with its open source foundations triggered an explosion of budget smartphones. This allowed adoption to transcend beyond enterprise use into mass consumer markets globally.

Q: What was the breakthrough impact of the first Apple iPhone?

A: While not the pioneering smartphone, the iPhone successfully showcased the rich utility that smart mobile devices offered for day-to-day productivity and activities. This led smartphones being embraced by mainstream audiences.

Q: What does the future hold for smartphone advancement?

A: If the relentless pace of smartphone evolution is any indicator, users can expect even more sophisticated devices featuring expanded screens, holographic interfaces, neural connectivity and increased embedded AI assistance.

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