Motorola 8800X

SMS turns 20 with a touch of festive cheer

By Charlotte Connelly, Content Developer – Making Modern Communications

Every time we invent a new communications device, somebody has to decide what the first every message will be. Sometimes this is planned in advance and has a weighty meaning. For example, when the first American telegraph line was officially opened in 1844, the first message sent by Samuel Morse asked: What hath God wrought?

On other occasions, the inventors of the technology were taken by surprise, such as Alexander Graham Bell. His first words were less majestic: Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you.

So, 20 years ago today, when 22-year-old British engineer, Neil Papworth, was trying out Vodafone’s new SMS system out for the first time, what did he send? Well, as it was nearing Christmas, there was really only one choice: MERRY CHRISTMAS

Motorola 8800X

This phone, the Motorola 8800X, was launched in 1992. The same year that the first SMS message was sent. Source: Science Museum

The first commercial SMS (short message service) system went into operation in 1993, after several years of tinkering with various text based messaging services. Mobile phone companies didn’t rush to get text messaging out there because they didn’t think anybody would be interested in sending such short messages.

In a way they were proved right, because it wasn’t until the late 1990′s when the first pre-pay phones came into use that texting really took off. Lots of users found texting to be a cheap way of sending a snippet of information, and by 2002 we were sending 2 million texts an hour in the UK alone.

Nokia 3310

You might recognise the Nokia 3310, it was launched in 2000 at around the time that sending text messages was really getting big. Source: Science Museum / Science and Society

The number of texts being sent around the world is still growing, but as our phones become the centre of our communications world, with social networks and email as well as texting and calling, the humble text message is going to have to work hard to stay in use.

One thought on “SMS turns 20 with a touch of festive cheer

  1. Jim

    As an engineer working on early telecoms systems, I seem to remember that SMS originated by accident when design engineers realised they had a few redundant spare ‘bits’ left over, and decided to put them to good use…

    Reply

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