Smithsonian Scholar Takes D.C. Kids Inside the Fascinating World of Cell Phones

by: James Wright Special to the AFRO
/ (Photo by J. Wright) /

Joshua Bell, a cultural anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution, recently talked to students at a District of Columbia charter school about an everyday gadget that most people in the world use and how it has shaped lives.

On Feb. 28, Bell talked to 19 students in the library of Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southeast, D.C. on the topic: “Unseen Connections: The Global Connections of Your Cellphones.”

Joshua Bell talks to students at Thurgood Marshall Academy. (Photo by J. Wright)

Bell’s presentation is part of the USA Science & Engineering Festival’s “Nifty Fifty Program” which sends over 200 top scientists and engineers into schools around the country to ignite students’ passion for science and engineering. The festival will be held in the District on April 7-8 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Bell works at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in the Ethnology Division.

Bell told the students that in his work, he has been to Papua New Guinea, Petra, Tunisia and Jordan. He said cell phones are used all over the world. “The cell phone is the perfect example of globalization,” he said. “It allows us to communicate and engage in our daily activities and it has changed the way we as humans interact.”

Bell said 90 percent of the world’s population has a mobile phone and its creation and proliferation “is the fastest development in human history.”

“There are probably 6.8 billion mobile phones in circulation,” he said. “It is surprising to find that of the countries and areas of the world with the most subscriptions aren’t the United States but Russia and the Middle East.”

Bell said the first cell phone was used by Marty Cooper on April 3, 1973 in New York City. Cooper is known as the “father of the cell phone” and helped it become commercialized in the 1980s. Bell told the students that 95 percent of Americans have cell phones and 77 percent use smartphones.

“The cell phone has become an indispensable thing,” he said. “For example, if I leave my wallet at home I will be fine, but if I leave my cell phone I go back in the house and get it.”

Bell answered questions from the students, all of whom owned a cell phone. He said, in response to one query, that in 10 years, it is quite possible cell phones could be implanted in human bodies.

Bell said the radiation that cell phones tend to generate has health professionals and scholars researching how this affects the human body. He noted that the cell phone has components that make it a world-assembled product. “A typical cell phone has materials from Asia, California, South Korea, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Bell said.

Bell also noted that of the 103 chemical elements “43 are in your cell phone.”