Cellular Pioneer Richard Frenkiel Receives Draper Prize

National Academy of Engineering Prize Recognizes WINLAB Professor’s Contribution to World’s First Cell Phone Networks

It is hard to remember a world without cell phones – and the ability to instantly connect to people and the Internet from virtually anywhere on earth. In February, the National Academy of Engineering awarded its Charles Stark Draper Prize to School of Engineering alumnus and WINLAB professor Richard Frenkiel in recognition of his pioneering work in cellular telephony.

“It’s a good feeling to be recognized for having made an early contribution to something that has become important to the world,” says Frenkiel. “Lots of people work hard and creatively on things that don’t become important, so there’s a lot of luck involved in getting the chance to work on something that changes the world.”

The prestigious Draper Prize honors Frenkiel as well as engineers Martin Cooper, Joel S. Engel, Thomas Haug, and Yoshima Okumura for work that led to creation of the technology that supports cellular mobile phones. The five engineers will share the $500,000 prize.

The recipient of the School of Engineering’s 2012 Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award, Frenkiel earned his MSME in 1965, while he was working at Bell Labs. He was a member of the first class to move up to the Busch campus, when the engineering building was the only building there. “I had a very easy time of it,” he recalls. “They gave me two days a week off to attend classes.”

Looking back at his time as a School of Engineering student, Frenkiel says, “I felt I understood the material better than I had as an undergraduate at Tufts, but the theoretical work didn’t have much to do with designing recorded announcement machines, which is what I was doing at Bell Labs.’

A Cellular Revolution

He began working on cellular systems in 1966 with co-Draper recipient Engel and Bell Labs’ Phil Porter.

“I got into cellular almost by accident. My department head called me in one day and gave me a choice between mechanical design and cellular systems engineering. I didn’t know anything about radio, but it seemed more interesting than designing recorded announcement machines,” he says.

An author of AT&T’s 1971 cellular proposal to the FCC, Frenkiel succeeded on a scale beyond his wildest expectations. Because of the interest in car phone service, he expected cellular would succeed. “But we never expected that everyone would have one and that people would spend so much time talking on their cell phones. We thought a few million people in the U.S. would use the service by the turn of the 20th century – but it was nearly a 100 million!” Today, there are an estimated six billion cell phones in use, which connect users to each other and to the Internet. “The Internet didn’t exist when we were doing our work, so the expansion of cellular beyond voice to Internet access was something we didn’t imagine,” Frenkiel adds.

Frenkiel spent 30 years at Bell Labs, serving as head of Mobile Systems Engineering before overseeing a team that designed cordless phones. “I got to set up a factory in Singapore,” he notes. After retiring in 1993, he joined Rutgers’ Wireless Information Networks Laboratory, or WINLAB, as a senior advisor. “I used to help people define interesting proposals for research. Lately, I teach the course in wireless business technology with Narayan Mandayam every fall,” Frenkiel says.

While the elective course is open to University juniors and seniors, it is especially popular with engineering students. “We try to show how success depends not just on technology, but on economics and politics as well, so students have to figure out what’s important in a given situation.” Students must also complete a team project that focuses on creating a new business.

Despite having paved the way for the cell phone revolution, Frenkiel seldom uses his own. “I’m sort of a daydreamer and I don’t really like to be called when I’m out walking or riding around. I do carry a cell phone – when I don’t forget! – because sometimes it’s really important to communicate with someone.”  Yet, surprisingly, the cell phone pioneer hasn’t updated his own phone for a while.  “Maybe I’ll buy a smart phone one of these days, so I’ll know where I am when I get lost,” he muses.

The Washington Post interviews the five winners.