Inspired by this question.

A time traveller appears in two situations in the year 1985

  1. in front of Steve Jobs and other Apple high ups
  2. in front of few federal and us army officials

The time traveller brought with him three iPhone 13s, charger included. He explained what he has brought and shows them how the phones work. He then gives three of the iPhones to each of them. He then disappears as mysteriously as he came.

Now, my initial question was how fast each of them could remake the phone, however, this time, I'm only asking:

Would the 1980s US government be able to recreate a smartphone?

Note: If you can answer both questiosn I would be very much pleased.

  • $\begingroup$ Palm Pilot is 1996 so they're only a decade away from the smartphone, anyway. How many years they can cut? Maybe five, and then they spend less time going in dead ends. $\endgroup$
    – alamar
    Apr 22 at 11:34
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    $\begingroup$ The manufacturing technology of digital integrated circuts was already progressing at break-neck pace in the 1980s. I am not sure why anybody would think that the progress could be accelerated to any significant degree. (The limiting factor was always the necessity to amortize the cost of the fabrication plants. Fabrication plants are really realy expensive, and you cannot keep building new fabs without first being well on your way to recover the costs of your old fabs.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 22 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ If the iPhone happens to have an offline dump of Wikipedia stored on it, that would probably be more helpful than the physical hardware would. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Apr 22 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ A modern cellphone would be nearly useless in 1980 without the network of satellites and cell towers to support it. I suppose you could play around with whatever apps you have on there that don't require any connection to the internet, but that's about it. $\endgroup$ Apr 22 at 20:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's an incredible compact camera, with amazing storage, but you'd probably have to photograph the screen to get images out of it, if you didn't want to risk destroying it. $\endgroup$
    – notovny
    Apr 22 at 20:19

6 Answers 6


Below picture is taken from an infographic made by Intel to celebrate Moore's law's 50 years in 2015.

enter image description here

As a ballpark figure will tell you which huge leaps has technology made. In the 80's it was believed that 1 micron would have been the ultimate end of lithography and integrated circuits (today we are starting to produce at 2 nm, 500 times smaller than 1 micron).

Even the architectures used in modern chips were yet to come.

Nobody in 1985 would have had the technology to reproduce the electronic present in a current smartphone with the same size.

And it would take them about 35 years to develop that technology, which is exactly what has taken us in this real world, unless your time traveler has take along also all the detailed development history of the IC industry.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ "unless your time traveler has take along also....." - which isn't entirely out of the question given modern smartphone memory capacity. $\endgroup$ Apr 22 at 11:29
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @EveninginGethsemane, I think you are underestimating the complexity of current IC manufacturing machines $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Apr 22 at 11:30
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ If we simply want a device that acts like a smartphone instead of an exact copy of a modern smartphone, the device could be a dumb radio with a small CRT and capacitive coating (which was starting to show up in cars in the '80s) while the actual computer is in the basement of a three letter agency. $\endgroup$
    – Hene
    Apr 22 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ today we are starting to produce at 2 nm, 500 times smaller than 1 micron annoying nitpicker here: the 2 nm are more of a commercial term and not necesarilly an indicator of any physical measure for the chips produced with said process $\endgroup$
    – Josh Part
    Apr 22 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ @EveninginGethsemane, there's a bootstrap problem you'd run into: you can't make a modern CPU without the use of a nearly-modern one. Modern CPUs are far too complicated to lay out by hand, and some of the mask techniques (such as the use of interference patterns to reduce feature size) require high-power computers to work out. You might be able to skip two out of every three generations, but even with full details on how to do it, it's going to take a decade or so just to build the tools you need. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Apr 22 at 22:43

There would be tremendous time saving involved from reverse engineering the materials. A lot of progress of semiconductor technology was driven by the ITRS roadmap. There were a lot of wrong turn and false starts along the way. Just having examples of what is possible would have been tremendous. The characterization tools were more primitive then, but was advanced enough that they would be able to identify many key features on the device level. Equally important would be understanding the packaging, surface mount components, antennas, sensors , display etc.

Steve Jobs might not have access to the tools need to do that level of reverse engineering but several government and commercial labs at the time would.

In terms of recreating the I-phone, I think it unlikely that they would want to or make a serious effort to duplicate the I-phone as a useful item. Instead they would take what they learned and apply to issues related to national security, space and missile programs, as well as advancing science and commercial application. The whole concept of a flat display, high efficiency white LEDs etc would spawn whole new industries.


Now this question can be read in two main ways:

  1. Can the US government recreate a modern smartphone.

A. To this I would answer no, as I am fairly no one had the manufacturing quality to build such small transistors at the time, however the modernish smartphone may arrive slightly sooner, maybe around 1990, and not 1994 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_Simon). However this leads us to the second interpretation:

  1. Could the US government make any form of smartphone?

A. Yes, if they try a lot they probably could make a VERY SIMPLE smartphone, think not an iphone but more like the Nokia 9000 Communicator but larger. As in 1980, both relatively portable computers existed (mcm/70 (kinda) and the Epson HX-20 would be released in 2 years.) and mobile phones (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonid_Kupriyanovich) so one would simply have to glue the two together and slightly miniaturize them and voila, a smartphone. As a smartphone is: "a mobile phone that performs many of the functions of a computer" this would count as one.



Look at your smartphone. Then look at photos of the Apollo program guidance computer. Your Smartphone could run the whole apollo program and you would still be able to do stuff on it. That's the state of 1970s chip technology.

1981 was the year MS-DOS was released. IT technology couldn't even begin to comprehend modern programming, and the tools to make the chips and boards needed for smartphones were still in its inancy: motherboards for the 1982 C64 were quite efficiently laid out for the time but to a modern designer have tons of wasted space and only use one side and filled with components that everybody could replace with a soldering iron and tweezers... while modern smartphones have at least two sides filled with low space surface mount components.

How did we get to that miniaturization? We made more powerful computers that could assist in making the next generation. The whole design of the smartphone is very heavily tied to the presence and availability of many types of surface mount components. The whole idea of SMD was only starting to gain larger traction around 1986 and it took till about the mid-1990s for SMD to surpass traditional components. Even then, the components of the mid-1990s would still be oversized and not able to set up the power of the smartphone.

Oh, and there is the sheer impossibility of computing power. The latest smartphones have a computing power inching in on 100 Terraflops. Some years ago, that was supercomputer territory. The Cray-2 from 1982 had 1.9 Gigaflops. That means you'd need 100 000 Cray-2 to get one smartphone in computer power. Only the 1993 Fujitsu Numerical Wind Tunnel would get to a factor of below 1000. The first computer to get past 1 Terraflop was ASCI Red in 1997. All in all, our smartphones are as capable as a quarter of the 2004-2008 Blue Gene/L setup - which has the size of a warehouse!


They'd never accept it.

You show up in the 1980s with a tiny spy camera, microphone, location tracker, fingerprint and face reader, all made in China. They're designed to produce commercial data that anybody from any country can search through with no kind of warrant. You say you want to get Americans to carry them around everywhere they go. (Even people on secret military bases!)

Just be glad they had an ACLU back then to stick up for Communist spies with abhorrent ideas. To think that those conniving Reds actually thought Americans would just lie down and accept such an idea, in exchange for some small graphic icons and an occasional wireless phone call!


Yes, but it would be huge. The USA did not have the ability to cram anything approximate to a modern smartphone's components into so small a space until this century at the very earliest, just because of the precision of manufacturing techniques. A lot of stuff would really confuse them, like the point of a touch screen when you can just have buttons for stuff, but I don't think it would have a particularly dramatic impact on computer technology at that point. Before the 1970's it would've changed things in major ways I don't know how to predict, but by the late 70's we had a pretty good idea what future computers would look like. The direction was predictable at that point, although not the physical limits. Things would be subtly different, and computers would've reached the current limits of smallness maybe 5-10 years ahead of us. They may or may not have solved the quantum tunneling issue by the 2020's, I have no idea, and cannot know until we solve it.


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