Happy 20th Birthday, Text Messaging!

3 minute read

Upland Admin

Twenty years ago, on December 3rd, 1992, Neil Papworth sent the first ever text message. Papworth was an engineer working on a project for Vodafone, and used his computer to send the text to Vodafone Director Richard Jarvis. It read “Merry Christmas.”

Text messaging actually was conceived in 1985, by a German communications researcher looking to create a pager system that business people could use while traveling. From those humble origins, texting has grown into the de facto way in which our society communicates. In 2012, the CTIA reported that 184.3 billion texts were sent every month – in the United States alone.

To celebrate the milestone, take a walk down memory lane, and check out a brief history of text messaging from our CEO Jed Alpert’s book, “The Mobile Marketing Revolution.”

From The Mobile Marketing Revolution by Jed Alpert

Text messages drive people to action – whether it’s voting, clicking a link, seeking out a vaccine, redeeming a coupon, making a phone call, or merely sending in their personal information. These are but a few of the uses that yield outcomes orders of magnitude greater than other forms of communication – and at a significantly lower cost. And yet the story of text messaging has none of the expected trappings of a blockbuster Internet Age success – no hungry young PhDs working in a Silicon Valley garage, no ultra-high-tech breakthroughs, and no overnight billionaires.

Friedhelm Hillebrand, the German communications researcherwho first saw the commercial potential of SMS and settled on its length limit, didn’t even conduct market research. Hillebrand was working to come up with a technology that would allow cellphones to transmit and display messages. His initial vision was small: that businesspeople with car phones (at the time, the only kind of cellphone in widespread use) would use SMS as a paging system on the road.  Because the wireless networks had limited bandwidth, messages needed to be as small as possible. That’s why the first “S” in “Short Message Service” stands for “Short.”

Working from home in 1985, Hillebrand reasoned that most of what people really needed to say would probably fit on a postcard, then tried out some sample messages for length on his typewriter.  He discovered that these sentences were almost always shorter than 160 characters. “This is perfectly sufficient,” he decided, in typically German fashion. “Perfectly sufficient.” Satisfied, he used his position as chairman of the nonvoice services committee of the Global System for Mobile Communications to require that all cell phones be capable of sending 160-character messages. Hillebrand owned no stake in this new application, and it never made him rich.

In fact, like many revolutionary technologies, SMS was slow to take hold. The world’s first SMS message wasn’t sent until December 1992. A 22 year old engineer named Neil Papworth used his personal computer to text “Merry Christmas” to Vodafone Director Richard Jarvis – the “Hello, Watson” moment of text messaging technology. The first SMS typed on a phone (rather than a computer) was sent the next year, in 1993, by Riku Pihkonen, an engineering student at Nokia. When the mobile providers eventually did set up SMS gateways, they were meant to be used for network notifications – usually, text messages to let customers know they had received a new voicemail. By 1995, customers were sending an average of only 0.4 messages per month.

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