On December 3rd, 1992 in the little town of Newbury, Berkshire, a UK programmer sent his best mate a few lines of greeting using a unique new technique called Short Messaging Service. The programmer, Neil Papworth, was a test engineer for the Sema Group, and sent the message via PC to the phone of Richard Jarvis, a Vodafone employee. The message was “Merry Christmas.” Vodafone intended the service as a fun and easy way to communicate internally.
That obviously wasn’t the case. It took seven years after that first message for texting to take off, but now nearly 8 trillion messages cross the air every year. Adults 18-25 send 133 messages a week each.
The Guardian has a nice long write-up on the service, but let’s take a moment to doff our hats to the lowly messaging system that could. SMS was, at least in Europe, popular for a number of reasons. Before inexpensive service plans, a single ring to a person’s phone from yours was used as a sort of signal that you had arrived or that you wanted to chat. This gave way to texts, which were often cheaper than “phone impulses,” relegating voice calls to the back burner.
SMS began with pagers which, in turn, got their start in telegraphy and telex. Messages like 911 and 07734 (read it upside down) were ways to send quick notes to friends. This led to “text pagers” and the first BlackBerry, a two-way pager launched in 1999, with its “druplet” keyboard. Text, in many ways, became the preferred mode of communication in business and between friends.
As you reach for your phone to tap out a message, drain a dram of wassail for the little messaging service that could. While my grumpy generation wld argu that txtspeak hz destryd th writun wurd, I suspect the rise of autocorrect and video chats may reduce our dependence on the old ways. But there’s still something special about getting the old “I luv u ;x” from a significant other and a bit of the old “80085” from a friend.