Retrotechtacular: Whatever Happened To The Paper Mobile Phone

It was one of the more interesting consumer tech stories floating around at the turn of the century, a disposable cell phone manufactured using a multi-layer folded paper circuit board with tracks printed in conductive ink. Its feature set was basic even by the standards of the day in that it had no display and its only function was to make calls, but with a target price of only $10 that didn’t matter. It was the brainchild of a prolific New Jersey based inventor, and it was intended to be the first in a series of paper electronic devices using the same technology including phones with built-in credit card payment ability and a basic laptop model.

The idea of a $10 mobile phone does not seem remarkable today, it’s possible that sum might now secure you something with features far in excess of the Nokias and similar that were the order of the day at that time. But when you consider that those Nokias could have prices well into three figures without a contract, and that the new features people considered exciting were things like integrated antennas or swappable coloured plastic covers rather than the multicore processors or high-res cameras we’re used to today, a phone so cheap as to be disposable promised to be very disruptive.

The web site publicity shot for the disposable paper phone.
The web site publicity shot for the disposable paper phone.

The product’s wonderfully dated website (Wayback Machine link, we’ve skipped the Flash intro for you) has pictures of the device, and the video below the break features shots of it in use as its inventor is interviewed. But by the end of 2002 the Wayback Machine was retrieving 404 errors from the server, and little more was heard of the product. No sign of one ever came our way; did any make it to market, and did you have one?

With the benefit of fifteen years hindsight, why did we not have paper mobile phones as part of the ephemera of the early years of the last decade? It was not a product without promise; a ten-dollar phone might have been a great success. And the description of a cheap laptop that talks to a remote server for its software sounds not unlike today’s Chromebooks.

Some of you might claim the product was vapourware, but given that they demonstrated a working prototype we’d hesitate to go that far. The likelihood is that it did not find the required combination of component price and manufacturing ease to exploit its intended market segment before its competition improved to the point that it could no longer compete. If you have ever taken apart a typical mobile phone of the period you’ll have some idea of why they were not cheap devices, for example the RF filter modules of the day were individually adjusted precision components. And paper-and-ink printed circuit boards are still a technology with a way to go even now, perhaps the idea was simply too far ahead of its time. Meanwhile within a relatively short period of time the price of simple candybar phones dropped to the point at which they would tempt the $10 buyer to spend more for a better product, so the window of opportunity had passed.

We’ve been promised throwaway consumer electronics printed on paper multiple times over the past few years, at one time for instance it seemed that our newspapers and magazines might feature Harry Potter-style moving images of news stories. But it seems that this is an area in which the world of conventional electronics has moved ahead of traditional media, and aside from a few boutique adverts in high-end magazines the technology has never broken the price barrier. We do have very cheap mobile phones and newspapers with moving images, but they come courtesy of inexpensive Chinese manufacture of conventional electronics and web-based news sources on tablets respectively.

We looked last year at conductive inks for prototyping, and we’ve featured more than one project using them over the years. Is it a technology that’s still waiting for its ten-dollar consumer product?

53 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Whatever Happened To The Paper Mobile Phone

    1. Your sentiment runs deep, but is so very wasteful. The amount of expensive, heavy, obsolete junk that is pulled out of labs is a testament to this. Cheap junk is balanced to obsolete at about the same rate of failure, but considering its ecological impact is so much less. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but cheap disposable junk is typically a greener solution than long-lasting nice expensive junk.

      1. Prove it.

        I dont think you are correct. Mass market products being constantly thrown away is NOT GOOD for the environment, nor is it cheaper.

        Consider a well made electronic device like a blender, cellphone, stereo, etc.. It will have roughly the same amount of raw materials, and the same resulting environmental impact as a far worse, or designed to fail device of similar type.

        Do you really believe what you have said?

        Even most dumb products like kitchen knives, children’s toys, hand tools… They do not contain less quality because materials are different – they suck because the labor costs have been drastically cut.

        1. As far as lab gear goes, I have lab quality measuring equipment here from the 1960s that’s not only still functional, but also still accurate to within 1ppm!
          Quality equipment is much less likely to end up in a landfill, and tends to last long enough to make up for the impact of manufacturing, and is usually repairable enough that it can be extended indefinitely. Another example from my own collection is my 1936 Westinghouse analog meter. All it needed was a new resistor and it was back in business.

          My own 2 cents on the subject.

        2. The fallacy is in thinking that people bother to keep the old equipment around.

          Take a cordless drill – whether it’s high quality or low quality, 99% of people who buy one will use it less than ten times and simply leave it on the garage shelf until the batteries have died. Years later when they happen to need the drill again, they find the batteries dead and throw the entire thing away, because a new drill costs the same as getting a replacement battery – if they’re available in the first place.

          So for most people it’s practically of no difference whether the drill is made with plastic gears and cheap electronics, or metal gears and parts made to fit a heirloom – it will be neglected and abused, broken down and replaced well before it would make any difference.

          It’s simply a waste of money, time and and materials to make the better product.

          1. That reads to me as, “Take something that was designed wrong in the first place and it’s just as bad as something else that was designed wrong in the first place.” …. because WHY PROPRIETARY BATTERY PACKS???!!!!

            In general avoid cordless for this reason, but do a have a couple of last of the NiCad/NiMh ones that I picked up “dead” and super cheap, because I knew I could cycle them back to life again.


            There are aftermarket 3rd party batteries that fit nearly all the cordless drills. The question is simply that when a person needs a cordless drill after finding theirs dead, they’ll walk to the nearest hardware store, pick up a cordless drill, and buy it. They won’t even bother diagnosing the problem, or whether there’s cheap replacement batteries available – the thing is simply too cheap.

            You can pick up an entire new hand drill for $18.72 from Walmart. It just isn’t worth your time to even look whether there are replacement battery packs, because the difference is a couple dollars at best. You won’t wait a day for it to arrive in the mail, or even drive to another store to pick one up, or spend 30 minutes looking up product codes to see if it’s compatible to save the price of a coffee.

      2. “obsolete” is as much marketing as fact. I laughed with glee and made out like a bandit at yard sales when power tools started coming with pointless and not contributing to real accuracy laser sights, and again when they got “digital” features, and again when they went cordless… happily picked up “one of everything” that was now “obsolete”…. funny, those guys have probably thrown out 5 drills since I bought theirs off them, bet they’re not drilling holes any better now than they were.

      3. My stainless steel kitchen stove with dual ovens was made in the 1960’s by the Nash Kelvinator division of American Motors Corporation. It’s still 100% operational, never has needed any repairs.

        I recently gave away an upright freezer made the same year I was, 1971. Still working, and still working for the church I gave it to. Next to the new freezer is my grandparents’ late 70’s side by side refrigerator-freezer.

        I have a Grundig radio from the early years of FM, it also receives AM and shortwave. Works perfectly. Love the green tuning eye tube with the varying width pie wedge.

        Most appliances of the 1980’s and newer just haven’t been made with the same degree of ruggedness that used to go into them. One exception was the GE P7 range. Stainless steel with swappable burner units. My parents have one. I’d love to hack it with a touchscreen control panel in place of the clock/timer on the front and replace the four burner control knobs with circles of LEDs to indicate the settings.

    2. They’re greenwashing disposable as recyclable now, it fails but it can be remade into other products at an energetically quite large reprocessing and transportation cost. The fact that this is a few percent better than virgin material seems to impress people… the fact that having that cycle happen every 3 years vs lifetime of 20 for a decently made product that only needed making once seems to escape notice.

      1. The rule of thumb with recycling: if it has real recycling value, they will pay you for it, or at least not make you pay anything to drop it off.

        If they make you pay for the recycling, e.g. baking in some sort of recycling fee in the price, it’s not actually recyclable. You have to pay someone to take it and process it, which means it’s not used for value-adding purposes.

        1. Look, it’s not worth arguing, it’s a DEMO, it could be a ‘dead as a doorknob’ origami phone with a voice-over of a call made on a conventional phone. It could be a line to a battery, and it could be a line to another phone – but of all three possibilities, the least likely option (IMHO) is the line runs to another phone (seems like a lot of work, and why? There is no on device display to show what’s happening), and a faked voice-over is the likeliest.


    1. The phone company obviously keeps logs of every phone (connected to the imei, the unique identifier for each phone) so this phone is no more anonymous or secure than any other phone. Any phone can be burned (this one isn’t literally made of paper).

  1. We were interested in using it as a promotional product: complete a phone survey, keep the phone! It didn’t happen and my understanding was that the higher ups didn’t like who was behind the product: too much Russian money, no willingness to commit, and other shady stuff going on.

  2. maybe what happened is the government feared it being an untraceable device (just like the 3d printable gun (remember the fuss that the government made over 3d printed guns and threatened it’s creator?)).

    the government did not want a burn phone.

    1. But untraceable phones with anonymous prepaid cards exist. They are just a little more expensive than 10$. You can get cheap phones for 20€. I think for an illegal operation the difference is negligible.

      1. True. And governments are often all about ‘sending messages’ to the public. Paper phones is giving way to the concept, meta-idea, of burner phones becoming accepted and normal.
        That is very far away from dumping your €20 dollar phone with resale value.


      1. Which is still like 10x the cost of a normal FR4 board. And the entire reason you don’t generally see polyester membranes in anything beyond keypads is soldering to them is not really possible.

    1. I get advertised sub-$100 laptops by Fry’s on average about once a week. Love or hate it, Negroponte’s big idea really did disrupt everything and if it wasn’t a success for him, it was a success.

      1. You confuse Negroponte’s ‘Big Idea’ with ‘Moore’s Law’ – Negroponte wanted completely non-standard laptops for third-world users to teach them computer concepts. Negroponte screamed when his ‘big idea’ was co-opted and Intel created extremely low-priced Windows laptops because they competed with his ‘big idea’.


  3. “the government did not want a burn phone.”

    What? Then why can I buy a go phone for $10 at Best Buy?

    Every call made on a cellphone, even one as minimal as this, can be tapped, and tracked – the NSA and other gov’t agencies do all their work at the cell tower/phone switch level.

    Perhaps the issue was the teeny-tiny margins possible in a $10 device, and the likelihood that the vast majority of them would be bought on a whim by tech hobbyists, then stuffed in a drawer like so many Raspberry Pis or $25 ham radios.

      1. What crime requires that the phone be dusted for fingerprints, other than using the actual phone as a weapon? And can’t smartphones be tossed in a fire and ‘burned’?

        The only unique thing about this phone is that it (presumably) would cost less than $10, making it more affordable to burn than an iPhone 7.


        1. Well any crime that requires the phone as evidence at all, unless it wasn’t a burner and you had it registered to your home address. Still even then, good lawyer, say you had it stolen, not in your possession etc etc,… so good prosecutor makes sure it gets finger printed to tie it to you more firmly so no longer “circumstantial”.

          Also bear in mind that police dept may have made breakthrough on phone records illegally or on tip off from a TLA that they are under NDA from, so require parallel construction from (matching) contents on phone to make an actual strong case, so phone needs to be strongly tied to suspect to make case.

          1. Just to be clear, this phone is not made of paper. Paper is used as a metaphor for how it folds up like a piece of paper. It is made of ordinary plastic flex pcbs.

    1. But they have to know in advance, that they want to tap and track a specific phone. And even if they record all this data, they have to link the number to you. If you dispose of the phone after a sufficiently short time, this becomes very difficult for the agencies.

      1. > > “But they have to know in advance, that they want to tap and track a specific phone.” > The Gov’t has the ability to go back and look up call activity thanks to facilities like the Utah Data Center –

        > “And even if they record all this data, they have to link the number to you. If you dispose of the phone after a sufficiently short time, this becomes very difficult for the agencies.” >

        How is this $10 phone in any meaningful way different than an $18 go phone I can buy at Best Buy right now?


          1. You understand that retailers don’t track the IEMI of Go Phones and tie them to purchasers credit cards or names – that’s just a TV Show ‘trick’ to move the plot along.

            You can go to Best Buy, put $20 on the counter and walk out with a burner cell phone with no traces to anyone, then when you add funds to the account, go buy a Go Phone gift card, paying in cash.

            I guarantee you, no one is correlating cash purchases to CCTV security footage to tie your go phone purchase to you.


  4. The teeny little problem with this, is that people mostly carry a phone so that people can call THEM. To take incoming calls. Making a disposable phone completely pointless, even more so than the idea is anyway. And it’s a pretty stupid idea to start with. Why would anyone want to throw a phone away?

    There was a phone in the early 1990s in the UK, called Rabbit. By Hutchison, who are now a comms giant and own several mobile networks. The Rabbit phone worked a lot like a landline cordless phone. You could make calls at a Rabbit base station, which had a range of maybe 30 metres. The base stations also functioned as phones, and most were privately owned by members of the public. The idea was you install it, let the public use your station, and I suppose Rabbit would pay you a share of what they make. As a Rabbit-point owner you also get your own Rabbit phone which works like a cordless phone on your own line.

    If by some unlikely situation you happened to be more than 30 metres away, the phone was also a pager, so that’s how you took incoming calls.

    All together, it was a hugely stupid idea. It was much cheaper than actual mobiles, of course. But it didn’t have the one feature people actually used mobiles for, incoming calls on the move.

    This paper-phone thing has the same problem. I have to wonder though, did the inventor not have a single person point out to him that it was a bad idea? The problems are obvious. It’s one advantage is cheapness, which just isn’t that important. In the end the networks got round that problem by subsidising the phones and locking them to their network.

    It’s not like PCB material is one of the big costs in a phone anyway. Etc. There’s just so many things wrong with this!

    1. “It’s one advantage is cheapness, which just isn’t that important. In the end the networks got round that problem by subsidising the phones and locking them to their network.”

      Uhm, no.

      Subsidized cellphones were fully paid for over the life of the phone contract – early termination fees and equipment charges made sure the cellular carriers were reimbursed for every cellphone they ‘subsidized’.

      Cellular carriers did not get rich by losing money on every subsidized cellphone. You paid, for example, around $100/month for a cellphone back then, or $2,400 over the life of your two year contract. The cost of your phone was baked into $100 monthly charge.


      1. “over the life of the phone contract”

        What contract? ~15 years of GSM phone ownership/use and I have never had a contract. Several of the phones I had in the earlier years were network locked and the initiial purchase price was subsidized heavily (25% or more would not be that uncommon) by the provider – and on average over the years I probably paid no more than £15 per month in calltime/sms/data credit.

        I should mention that I am in the UK (and I am assuming Greenaum is as well) – pay as you go/prepay is about 50% of the market over here, and our telecommunications providers are regulated more heavily, so behave/price more reasonably than the US ones most of the time. I’m sure what you say is a lot more true for the US market.

    2. “The teeny little problem with this, is that people mostly carry a phone so that people can call THEM. To take incoming calls.”

      It might just be that you’re way more popular than any of the losers I know, but I know nobody that this is true for. I carry a phone, and always have, to contact other people. There have always been solutions for receiving calls while I was out and about, but the mobile is for me to make them.

      At a point in time when you had to top up your phone with a voucher from a vending machine, I definitely could have seen a market for this – especially with students.

      1. I’m not that popular, and a certain amount of my phone calls are from my Mum, but I wouldn’t want to be without the ability for people to call me. Mostly I’m indoors but I definitely get calls when I’m out and about. Without a mobile my life would be quite a bit less convenient.

        How do you recieve calls when you’re outside? Surely that’s what mobiles were invented for! Before mobiles, there were phone boxes to call people from. Outgoing calls have never really been a problem.

        The best thing about mobiles is arranging to meet people. In the past, you’d arrange to meet at 4 o’clock by the town hall. If your friend wasn’t there by 4:30 you’d go home pissed-off and have to arrange to meet another day. Now you don’t even bother arranging, you just call them, “where are you? I’ll be in town in 10 minutes, call you when I’m there.” and then you just meet them wherever they’re stood. Infinitely better.

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