Texting turns 30 years old, with the first ever text being a festive, timely one

The world’s first text message was sent by British engineer Neil Papworth during the Christmas season.
Brittney Grimes
Texting on a smartphone in a park.
Texting on a smartphone in a park.

Tero Vesalainen/iStock 

Texting has become an integral part of everyone’s lives. People of all ages send each other text messages for various reasons, with some preferring text over phone calls. The world’s first text message was sent thirty years ago, on Dec 3, 1992.  

The first text message

The message was sent by Neil Papworth, a British engineer and developer who worked for Sema Group Telecom at the time, a company that created a Short Message Service Centre (SMSC) for their customer, Vodaphone. We now know this as an SMS, an acronym for Short Message Service.

SMS is a form of text messaging. It is a text-based communication tool used to contact and communicate with others using messages on cell phones or computers. It is responsible for sending, receiving, storing, and forwarding messages from mobile devices. SMS allows users to send text messages from one device to another.  

It works by signaling a nearby cellular tower over a control channel, and then into an SMS center. Then, the SMS resends the message to a cellular tower closest to the recipient, going to the receiver’s phone.

Texting turns 30 years old, with the first ever text being a festive, timely one
A cellular tower for mobile phones.

The text message service originated from radiotelegraphy, a form of radio communication that used coded signals such as Morse code. This was eventually defined by the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), a network created by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, to identify the procedures for digital cellular networks used by mobile devices.

Texting is the most widely used feature

As of last year, according to a Pew Research Poll, 97% of Americans own a cell phone. 85% of Americans own a smart phone, which is an increase from 35% in 2011. It seems that everybody sends text messages on their smart phones, regardless of age, due to the fact that nearly everyone has a cell phone. The number was extremely marginal in the year the first text message was sent. However, today, texting is the most widely used smartphone feature.

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Although the idea for texting was first pitched in 1984 by a Finnish engineer named Matti Makkonen, it was initially turned down. Eight years later, the idea came to life, this time becoming the prototype for SMS that is known today. Engineers incorporated SMS with the GSM network.

A Vodaphone engineer in Berkshire the U.K. sent the first text message in 1992. Neil Papworth sent the first ever text to his colleague, Richard Jarvis, who at the time was at a Christmas party. The phone Jarvis received the first text on was the novel Orbitel 901 handset, which weighed almost 5 pounds (2.1 kg).

Texting turns 30 years old, with the first ever text being a festive, timely one
The Orbitel TPU 901 (1992).

Although the phone was considered large and bulky at the time, it still made history as the device that received the first text message was ever, after being sent.

A message of holiday cheer

Neil Papworth worked for a team that was developing the SMCS for Vodaphone. In order to test the communication service, he sent the world’s first text message, which was “Merry Christmas” in December 1992. At the time, he was 22 years old and sent the initial message through a computer to Jarvis’ phone.

Texting turns 30 years old, with the first ever text being a festive, timely one
Texting on a smartphone by a Christmas tree.

To this day, the initial text has had a huge impact on SMS and the way people communicate on mobile devices. Every day, billions of text messages are sent globally, with trillions of text messages sent worldwide every year.

Although there are new app-to-app messaging servers such as Facebook Messenger, iMessage, and WhatsApp, text messaging still remains one of the most commonly used form of mobile phone messaging, and it all started with the first “Merry Christmas” text sent 30 years ago.