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

Twenty two years ago, a developer working in Newbury, Berkshire, sent a two-word text message, marking the start of a whole new way of communicating.

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 Tlcom. 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.

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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, being 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 per month in the UK fell from 162 in 2012 to just 65 in 2019

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

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ben bought when the price was under $200, but went on to spend it all on foolish fripperies.