Oribitel TPU 900 and TPU 901

Orbital TPU 900

The world's first GSM phone and the first phone to receive a text message

The Orbitel TPU 900 (left) was the world's first GSM phone. As you can see it was hardly tiny. Digital technology was more bulky than analogue. This world's first went to a British company, Orbitel, a joint venture between Racal and Plessey, beating Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson to make the first phone to be approved for the new GSM standard in 1991.

As you can imagine these phones were not great sellers, however, Orbitel succeeded in exporting them to Germany and there was a revised model, the TPU 901. The Orbitel was the first phone that the UK's first GSM provider, Vodaphone, offered.

This phone also has the accolade of being the first phone to receive a text message. Neil Papworth, sent the world's first text "Merry Christmas" on 3 December 1992 to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis, who received it on an Orbitel TPU 901.[1]

As GSM spread to Africa, these phones became something of a status symbol, because of their large size.


[1]Wikipedia - SMS

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Comments (12)

Mert are you sure about the power? GSM is limited to 2W transmited power. And of course if you're far enough away to need 8W you'd need the base station to transmit 8W too. And I doubt it would. I think you're thinking of 1G phones. Are you confusing power usage with signal power? Also I would think SIMs would be backward compatible, particularly when talking to a 2G phone. Even if it's not explicitly so, presumably if the phone doesn't try use more than 8K the card won't make any difference. Only some networks support 2G. Three doesn't (expect rarely when their main service is down a 2G one comes up for bare minimum speech and SMS, I doubt that's normally provided though). EE don't. Vodafone did last I checked and O2 was Cellnet so they prob do to support their older customers. Some of the virtual networks, Tesco and Lebara among others, might. There are still bottom-end phones sold that use 2G, which is kind of amazing in a disappointing way. China also makes and sells 2G phones using stuff like the Mediatek 6326, an old (by our standards) but not venerable cheap chipset (it's just one chip!) that runs all sorts of wristwatch-phones and $7 smart-watches, as well as up-your-bum prison smuggle phones and a million other cheap shitty novelties. All popping up just as 2G ought to have been killed, because the networks were just a bit too kind to their older customers and kept it going just that bit too long, to the point where the 2G chips became so cheap it opened up a new market. Still, helps the Africans / Asians being able to buy handsets that are virtually free, or can be given free with modest contracts. NIGEL, any interesting stories about the old days? Maybe contact the site owner. I'd like to hear about the technology back then. What sort of computers did phones use? Like an discrete 8-bit CPU and a few K RAM? Or a PIC, or what? Did Motorola and Zilog etc do embedded versions of their main CPUs back then? Would you have a separate custom chip for the voice CODEC and what about managing channel hopping? I'd love to know the practicalities of it all, but then I am quite strange.

It has got 8 Watt RF power, really. Next cell 20 miles away? No prob! Really cool, today you never would have any no-contact-area

Terry, does the charger have a pinout written on it anywhere? On a label or imprinted on the case? You'd be helping Wolfgang to tell him. As for new batteries I would imagine these use a group of Nicad cells attached into a pack. You can still get Nicad packs meant for cordless phones, among other things. Just need one with the right amount of cells that will fit. Check they are Nicad first but I'd be surprised if they're not. NiMH cells would do as a replacement. The cells are usually joined into a pack with little metal strips that are spot welded on. That might be a problem. You can't really solder them cos the metal casing drains away heat too fast, and too much heat will damage or explode the battery. They use custom spot welders to do it in factories. You could maybe improvise sometime from a car battery, some large capacitors, or something, maybe ask a welder. If you wanted to try solder you'd need to rough up the casing first to provide a "key". If the cells are in some sort of plastic case, all the better! It will help hold things together. Even if you found an old-stock battery for this, the cells would have long since died anyway from age, permanently.
I think you mean the first ** GSM / 2G ** phone that the UK's first GSM provider, Vodafone, offered. Since they did offer other phone first, just not digital ones. Petty difference, I know, but it still is a difference in meaning.
Wolfgang Waldthaler
Dear Sirs, I hav an old "Orbitel MTU/TPU 900", the Siemens Clone, and I'd like to ask if you have the Pinout for the Charger and Power Port. Thank you in advance. Wolf
your mum has no sexual contact
i like to lick you out when you are asleep
I have an Orbital TPU900. Do any one know where I can get a New Battery. It works on the Mains Charger & the Car Charger lead I have the Carry case as well its like new
Nick Cooper
This was a really important phone. The first on the market, but also important for having a test interface. If you had the right cable and a connected laptop it would tell you in great detail what was happening to it on the network. This made it indispensable for engineers charged with network rollout, launch and optimisation. The SIM was a pain in the rump though. It was a full-sized credit card that slotted into the handset just under where your fingers fell when making a call. It was so easy to accidentally knock and cause an IMSI Detatch...
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I wonder how about the sim card, coz you know nowadays we use sim card which are more than 64 kbyte capacity. In the past sim cards about only 8 kbyte when the orbital new hardware. I'm really interested in that devices, they are big okay but they have 8 watt RF power so they can be useable such as out of the city or terrain areas.
NIgel Tout
Orbitel started as a Plessey / Racal joint venture. Racal became Racal Telecom and bought out Plesseys share. Vodafone bought Racal Telecom. Vodafone sold Orbitel to Ericsson Ericsson closed the basestation part of the company. Kept the mobile phone part. Why do I know this. I Worked terecascan RF Engineer. Designing the TPU 900 then the 901 1988 to 1993
Wakko Warner
I have one of these that still works
David Pearce
Orbital was a JV between Racal Vodafone and Ericsson Please spell VODAFONE correctly. Although, having said that, Gerry Whent sacked our then PR officer for displaying 'don't forget your f in Vodafone' on a DM display at the TMA Conference in Brighton in the late '80s.
Mobile phone history