Obituary: Sir Ernest Harrison

Sir Ernest Harrison: The man who imaged the mobile phone

Virginia, USA, 1980, five years before the word “cellphone” entered the vocabulary, an Englishman was entering the gates of General Electric’s mobile radio factory in Virginia. That man was Gerry Whent, head of Racal’s tactical military radio division, Racal Tacticom, and he had orders from his chairman Ernest Harrison to spearhead the company’s first move into mobile communications.

GE and Racal made a deal which would enable the UK defence electronics company to use its experience in military radio to break into a new commercial market for radio communications using products developed by GE.

Ernest Harrison was the first man in Europe, perhaps the world, to see the commercial potential of turning what was then military radio technology into a business and then consumer mobile phone service.

“Increasingly around the world,” said Harrison in 1980, “users are requesting total radio systems meeting full military specifications to be used in conjunction with high quality commercial land mobile radio systems.”

In that statement, Vodafone and the mobile phone industry as we now know it was first imagined.

And five years after he made it, people were queuing up to jump aboard the mobile phone bandwagon and luckily for the UK industry, Margaret Thatcher’s government was among them.

In 1982, Harrison, who then ran the UK’s second largest military electronics company, was given one of the UK’s first two mobile phone licences, and he set about creating a mobile phone operator which would become Vodafone.

Sir Ernest Harrison, OBE, chairman, Racal Electronics, 1966-2000, died on February 16, aged 82.

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