‘Merry Christmas’: The Text Message Turns 20 Today

It was 20 years ago today that the very first text message was sent.

On December 3, 1992, Neil Papworth, an engineer working in the UK, sent the world’s first short message service or SMS. It read “Merry Christmas.” Since then, an estimated 8 trillion texts have been sent, and texting has become one of our primary means of communication.

The origins of texting date back to 1984 when Matti Makkonen, a Finnish civil servant, put forward the idea at a telecoms conference. He is called the “father of SMS” for floating the idea, though he dislikes the identifier because many others worked hard to develop the technology. He rarely gives interviews but made a text-only exception with the BBC today. You can read that here.

Then came 22-year-old Neil Papworth, who in 1992 was working for a company called Semea Group Telecoms. The company was working on a text messaging project for European cellular carrier Vodafone.

“It happened that day that Vodafone wanted to try sending a message to Richard Jarvis, one of the directors there, who was at a Christmas party. So we sat at the computer and typed him a message and then sent him the message ‘Merry Christmas,'” Papworth told ABC News. “For me it was just another day’s testing, it didn’t seem to be anything big at the time.”

Indeed, it didn’t seem terribly big for even the next ten years. Once the new millennium took hold, so did texting as a way of communicating.

“Years went on and people were able to start to send text messages. It took quite a few years of it to take off,” Papworth said. “But by the 10th anniversary it was fairly big by then.”

Texting may now be on the decline, as more and more people now use smartphones, and, with smartphones, they use e-mail, instant messaging, iMessage, and social media to communicate. Still, even though it may have fallen from its spot as the primary form of shorthand communication, Papworth thinks that texting will always be around because it’s cheap and reliable.

“Those handsets can do text messaging, but not everything can use data,” he said. “Yes, the data is showing that it is starting to decline, but it’s not going to go away. There is a lot of use for it alongside all the data services.”

How many texts did you send today?

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