On December 3, 1992, the first SMS text message in history is sent: Neil Papworth, a 22-year-old engineer, uses a personal computer to send the text message “Merry Christmas” via the Vodafone network to the phone of a colleague.
Papworth, while working for the now-defunct Anglo-French IT services company Sema Group Telecoms, was part of a team developing a “Short Message Service Centre” (SMSC) for the British telecommunications company Vodafone UK. At the time, Sema Group hoped to use these short messages as a paging service. After Papworth installed the system at a site west of London, he sat at a computer terminal and sent the simple message to the mobile phone of Richard Jarvis, director of Vodafone, who was attending a holiday party.
“It didn’t feel momentous at all,” Papworth later said. “For me it was just getting my job done on the day and ensuring that our software that we’d been developing for a good year was working OK.”
Shortly after, Papworth received a call from the Christmas party, letting him know that the outgoing message was a success, although cellphones themselves could not actually send messages in return yet.
One year later, Nokia released the first cellphone with an SMS feature, but messages (limited to 160 characters due to bandwidth constraints) could only be sent within the same mobile network—phone networks would finally allow users to SMS across rival companies in 1999. Texting as a means of casual communication blossomed with the introduction of the Tegic (T9) system of predictive texting and pre-paid phone plans, which originally did not charge for texts and appealed to young people. Because of the 160-character constraint, as well as the cumbersome nature of typing with a numeric keypad, an entire “language” of abbreviations and slang emerged through SMS and spread across internet-based messaging.
In the United Kingdom, the birthplace of texting, SMS messaging exploded in popularity—by February 2001, about one billion texts were being sent every month, and users were being charged 10 pence a text, generating about £100 million a month in corporate profits. By 2010, the International Telecommunications Union reported that 200,000 text messages were being sent every minute, but by 2012, texting across the world began to see a steady decline, with messages from instant-messaging apps concurrently spiking.