Texting Turns 20: The History of SMS

The first text message was sent on 3 December 1992, when the 22-year-old British engineer Neil Papworth used his computer to wish a “Merry Christmas” to Richard Jarvis, of Vodafone, on his Orbitel 901 mobile phone. Papworth didn’t get a reply because there was no way to send a text from a phone in those days. That had to wait for Nokia’s first mobile phone in 1993.

The first text messages were free and could only be sent between people on the same network, but in 1994 Vodafone – then one of only two mobile networks in the UK – launched a share price alert system. The arrival in 1995 of the Tegic (aka T9) system, which created “predictive” texting based on the letters you had typed, meant texting could take off.

Commercial services soon followed, and though they started life as a free service – because operators hadn’t figured out how to charge for them – it was quickly realised there was money to be made from texting as the number rose dramatically. By February 2001 the UK was sending one billion texts a month, which at the standard 10p-a-text charge meant the business was raking in about £100m a month.

The amount of data in a text message is tiny, at just 128 bytes. Charged at the same price per byte, a 650MB music CD would cost more than £60,000.

A timeline of texting

1992 First text message sent

1995 T9 system invented, making texting quicker

2001 Text volume passes 1bn a month in the UK

2001 Text messaging is used to help organise protests that topple President Joseph Estrada in the Philippines

2002 A service called Text2TV from a Devon-based company says it will let you send texts to your TV and reply via your remote. It doesn’t take off

2003 David Beckham sends a series of steamy text messages to his personal assistant Rebecca Loos; they are later published, and nearly end his marriage

2004 Tony Blair takes part in a live text chat

2005 The Eurovision song contest includes SMS votes, creating the biggest ever “televoting”

2008 Nielsen reports that the average US mobile user sends and receives more texts per month than phone calls – 357 v 204

2009 WhatsApp, a free text-like service that lets people send messages for free over data connections, is founded

2011 Number of texts sent at Christmas falls year-on-year in Finland, Hong Kong, Spain and the Netherlands

2012 Ofcom reports that text messages are the most-used method for daily communication with family and friends – 58% of UK adults do so at least once a day

2012 Rebekah Brooks reveals that David Cameron sent her texts signed “LOL” because he thought it meant “lots of love”; its usual meaning is “laughing out loud”

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