3 December 1992: the world’s first text message is sent

The idea of sending messages to mobile phones by text isn’t particularly new. The concept of the ‘SMS’ – or short messaging system – was created 30 years ago, in 1984, by Friedhelm Hillebrand  of Deutsche Telekom and Bernard Ghillebaert of France Télécom. Between them, they developed the system that still exists today.

But oddly, it would be another eight years before the first message was actually sent.

Neil Papworth was a 22-year-old developer for Sema Group Telecoms. He was working in Newbury, Berkshire, on an SMS centre for Vodafone. On 3 December 1992, Papworth sent the (rather premature) message “Merry Christmas” to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis, who was apparently at his works Christmas do.

Although it was the first message to be received by a mobile phone, it wasn’t sent by mobile phone. It was sent from Papworth’s office computer. At the time, mobile phones had no way of inputting text.

But a year later, Nokia came out with a model that could. And over the next 20 years, the use of text messaging grew like wildfire as people – and especially young people – made more and more use of the system. By 2011, more than a billion texts a month were being sent in the UK.

The brevity of the messages – texts are still limited to 160-characters – spawned a new lexicon that is now firmly part of everyday language, bursting many a blood vessel of those who claim to speak ‘proper’ English.

Now, however, the use of text messaging is on the wane. By 2013, more messages were being sent by new-fangled instant-messaging technologies than by text. And the number of messages sent per person in the UK fell from 227 in 2012 to 170 in 2013.

But while that’s a trend that is likely to continue, there is probably still plenty of life in the humble text message yet.