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Ben Wood was working at Vodafone’s long-forgotten premium rate phone line division in the mid-1990s when the mobile phone market suddenly took off.
In little more than a decade, the handset evolved from a piece of technology the size of a car battery to the “candy bar” style models that took it into the mainstream.
Wood has preserved each development, salvaging old handsets from the Vodafone skips. Almost 30 years later he has amassed a collection of 3,255 models covering the “golden era” of the mobile phone. “It is a few more than that with the ones I have at home and hidden from my wife,” he admitted.
He has now joined forces with other collectors to launch the world’s first significant mobile phone museum, funded through a five-year sponsorship agreement with Vodafone that was struck this week.
The museum will launch as a vast online archive in November to tell the story of what is now the world’s most prolific consumer device, with 1.5bn smartphones sold last year alone.
The Mobile Phone Museum, which will be structured as a charity, will be turned into a travelling exhibition displayed at science and design museums and schools over the coming years.
It will showcase popular handsets that predate the iPhone era. Phones such as the Nokia 3310 “Beetle”, which shipped a staggering 126m devices and brought the game Snake to the world; the fashionable pink Motorola Razr — the best-selling phone in the history of Carphone Warehouse — and full-keyboard BlackBerry models, will provide a nostalgic hit of a bygone era of personal communication, according to Wood.
The museum also features handsets that had significant cultural impact including Wall Street’s Motorola DynaTAC8000x, which was the symbol of the Gordon Gekko “greed is good” era and the Nokia 8110 “banana” phone that gained cult currency due to its use in the film The Matrix. There is also a collection of forgotten ugliest phones — including the Nokia 3650 that had a rotary phone-style circular keyboard that made texting impossible — and evolutionary dead-ends such as the Siemens Xelibri fashion range, some of which were based on alien-inspired designs.
Wood, 48, spent lockdown scouring eBay to find rare models after being “filled with horror” at the idea of people clearing out their attics and dumping old handsets in the bin.
Now a telecoms analyst with research company CCS Insight, he said the glory days of the innovative mobile industry were in the past as a “sea of sameness” — touchscreen rectangles — has characterised the industry. “As soon as Steve Jobs pulled an iPhone out of his pocket on stage on the ninth of January, 2007 it was all over,” he said.
Nonetheless, he argued that the museum’s artefacts showed there was “zero room for complacency” for companies such as Apple and Samsung in a market where innovations like foldable screens are starting to emerge.