Smart phones: Collecting an electronic montage

By Harold D. Wallace Jr.
Image of what looks like a cell phone with one of its panels removed so that insides are visible.

New inventions always build on inventions of the past—and sometimes more than one. Few devices demonstrate that more clearly than smartphones. These technological marvels pack a battery-powered telephone, camera, radio, television, computer, flashlight, and more into one pocket-sized package. In addition to the hardware, there's the software, both the apps and the coding that makes the hardware function as a single device.

Image of what looks like a cell phone with one of its panels removed so that insides are visible.

I recently helped the team at the Tellus Science Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate in Cartersville, Georgia, select objects to borrow for their new exhibition on the history of smartphones. The World at Your Fingertips shows the wide range of devices that a smartphone embodies, each with its own fascinating history. Their approach made me think about what we already have in the collections and what more we'll need to collect as we document smartphone development.

One piece of the hardware, batteries, provides a foundation for almost all modern electrical devices. In 1800 Alessandro Volta demonstrated that alternating discs of metals like zinc and nickel produce a steady electric current. His invention enabled a host of discoveries about the nature of electricity and magnetism. Smithsonian curators have been collecting batteries since establishing the Electricity Collections in the 1890s. Although batteries present conservation challenges (they corrode easily) we continue to document that history.

When collecting software history we tend to think of computers and people like Ada Lovelace but a form of binary code lay at the heart of Samuel F. B. Morse’s telegraph system. Rather than ones and zeros, Morse and his associate Alfred Vail devised a system of dots and dashes recorded on paper tape, as seen on the famous 1844 message "What Hath God Wrought." Later versions of the code proved useful for wireless telegraphy, the first form of radio. Today, museum staff actively collects born-digital materials and works with professional colleagues to determine standards and practices for preservation of this new type of collection.

Another important point in hardware history is the development of mobile telephones, a melding of telephones and radio that began in the 1930s. During World War II Motorola made portable radios for the military, like this U.S. Army Signal Corps Handie-Talkie. After the war, Motorola, Bell Labs, GE, and others began producing mobile transceivers for Citizens Band radio and Land Mobile Telephone Service. The limitations of Land Mobile spurred engineers to design a more efficient switching system for the Advanced Mobile Phone Service—the origin of the cell phone system we use today.

Collage image: On left, a walkie talkie-style device in Army green/grown with antenna, button, and two speaker-type protrusions. On upper right, a beige phone handset with dial and buttons. On bottom right, a black/gray box with a button.

When one invention replaces another, there's often a period of transition as people learn how to use the new technology. During that time, certain devices may exhibit features of both. These hybrids represent a bridge between the two inventions. By the 1940s engineers had designed many ways to control electrons using vacuum tubes, but the fragile tubes burned out quickly and used a lot of electricity. The invention of transistors at Bell Labs in 1947 provided a less fragile and more energy-efficient way to move electrons around. In 1975 museum curators collected a set of objects that show the move from tube to transistor. This circuit board has four vacuum tubes along the top, along with an early transistor in the lower left corner. Smartphones represent a similar move from old to new, and we are especially alert to transitional objects.

Photo of small device with four little nubs that have wires.

Imaginative inventors sometimes combine technologies in unexpected ways to produce novel devices. For example, George Mueller and Ihor Lys gave electric lighting new capabilities when they connected a computer chip to 15 light emitting diodes (LEDs). They could program this one device with sequence and timing to create a rainbow of colors. We are actively collecting objects that document similar cases of convergence, such as digital cameras, MP3 players, and smartphones.

Rectangular device with many electronic components

The hardware and software histories we collect are really about the people who made, distributed, and used these devices. And these are only a few types of materials needed to tell the story of smartphones. Advertising and trade literature, photos of manufacturing facilities, objects that show failures and paths not taken, interviews with people who’ve made the history—all of the discrete histories that fed into the electronic montage we call a smartphone need to be collected so we can better understand how it came to be.

That collecting effort serves more than today’s audiences at venues like the Tellus Science Museum. An important part of a curator's job here at the National Museum of American History is to look at current events and trends, and then decide what should be put aside for the future. People a century or more from now will want to know how today's decisions shaped their world. They'll need the raw materials of history, and they'll look to the Smithsonian's collections for the objects and archives that document our times. Often it's difficult to say what may be important and what may be only a passing fad. Even though smartphones will someday become obsolete, I've no doubt that preserving the history of this technology will be crucial for understanding the early 21st century.

Hal Wallace is curator of the Electricity Collections and had the pleasure of presenting a public lecture to open the new exhibition. He also took the opportunity to enjoy some of the local barbecue.

The World at Your Fingertips can be seen until June 2018 at the Tellus Science Museum in Cartersville, Georgia.