Cell phones have been around for more than 50 years.

However, it has only been in the last decade that cell phone usage has become a major part of most people’s lives. Today, more than one member of every household in the United States owns a cell phone. They play a major role in society by enabling voice and text communications worldwide.

The basic concept of cellular or mobile phones began in 1947. Motorola was the first to make a portable device designed for use outside of a vehicle. Not much happened in the industry for almost 20 years as the bureaucracy struggled with rules and regulations. Broadcasting a message over airwaves came under the Federal Communications Commission, a federal agency.

In 1968, the FCC increased the allocations of frequencies, making more “space” on the airwaves for cell phones. AT&T devised a system of multiple small, low-powered towers, each covering a ‘cell’ (hence the name) a few miles across, together covering a much larger area. Each tower used only a few of the frequencies allocated to the system. During the 1970s, Motorola, AT&T and Bell Labs all worked to develop and improve a practical cell system. By the end of the decade, several prototypes were in operation and the first commercial cellular system was online in Tokyo, Japan.

In 1982, driven by huge public demand, the FCC finally authorized commercial cellular service for the United States. Consumers quickly overwhelmed the system, and by 1987, cell telephone users exceeded one million and the airways were getting overcrowded. Early devices were called “bag phones.” They were heavy and looked like a large purse, containing a hand set, electronics and a battery.

To stimulate the growth of new technology, the FCC declared that cellular licensees could employ alternative cellular technologies using expanded frequencies. In 1988, the Cellular Technology Industry Association was established. It worked with service providers to identify and develop new technology requirements and set goals for new systems.

Here’s how it works. The cell system is composed of areas of service in what looks like a hexagonal grid. A base station tower in the center of the cell covers an area around the tower. Cell phones transmit to a tower, which then connects to a land-based telephone system or the Internet to route the call. As a phone travels across an area, its call is “handed-off” from tower to tower. Because the transfer is instantaneous, there is no noticeable interruption. If the phone moves into an area not served by a tower or blocked by terrain (such as in our mountains), the call is dropped and a “no-service” message appears.

Basic cell phones can handle making calls, checking e-mail, surfing the Web, and snapping a few pictures. They all have pretty much the same components: a screen, speaker, microphone, circuit board and an antenna. But today’s phones have evolved into much more. Commonly called a “smartphone,” it is actually a mini-computer that has a touchscreen and may accept voice commands. In general, a smartphone will be based on an operating system, such as Apple IOS, Android or Windows, that allows it to run applications, or apps. It can take high resolution photos and videos, and store them with a lot of other data.

Today, there are thousands of apps such as personal and business finance managers, handy personal assistants, finding things like shopping or restaurants, getting directions or almost anything, many of them free to download. Apps can edit photos and create a playlist of digital tunes. Cell technology is changing so fast that next month or even next week could bring some new innovations.

There are some hazards associated with using mobile phones. Driving or crossing busy streets while talking is a distraction. Some states and localities require hands-free for talking while driving and some prohibit texting while doing so. The mobile phone industry accepts that cell phone radiation has some effect on the electrical activity in our brains and there have been a few studies suggesting that continued cell phone use over a long period can cause cancer. There is no absolute evidence of this, but there is also no proof that radiation from cell phones is totally safe.

Cell phones are changing the ways in which we communicate. Some say this is a good thing by bringing people closer together, and others argue that the increased use of texting is causing us to lose the art of conversation. This point was made by a picture of two people sitting at a table texting each other rather than talking.

Those who would like to ask me questions about any other science topic may e-mail inquiries to lynn@thesylvaherald.com.

Marcus Goodkind of Tuckasegee, a retired aerospace engineer, worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a manager at Kennedy Space Center on all the manned programs from Mercury to Shuttle, including Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing.