A Brief History Text Messaging – Happy 21st Birthday to You!

Text Meme 1 bad_mom_textText messages have officially just turned 21. Let’s party!

The very first text was sent by 22-year-old communications engineer Neil Papworth in the UK on December 3, 1992.

From a computer to the phone of a friend at a party. It said, ‘Merry Christmas.’

Much later that same night the next three texts were sent. All to an unidentified female workmate, and they were:

‘I’m the only one in the world who can text, and you’re the only one in the world for me.’

‘Sorry wrong number.’

‘Babe wanna meet up anyway? I’ve totes just invented this amaze-balls thing. It’s going to like be, like proper huge. Like the thing in my pants. OMG you sound cute. Call me lol.’

In case you were wondering, ‘SMS’ stands for ‘short messaging service’. Not ‘so many slip-ups,’ or ‘sexting makes sense’ or even ‘Steve might get some’.

So I wonder how text messages might have celebrated turning twenty-one?Text Meme 2 funny-text-message-dad-advice

Maybe by legally getting drunk in the USA.

Then sending inappropriate versions of itself to other pieces of technology.

‘Hey iPhone, take off that cover and send me a naked selfie.’

‘Yo Snapchat. Get nude and send me something crazy. Via text. So I can keep it.’

‘Excuse me picture messaging. Have you heard? A word tells a thousand pictures. You’ll never replace me!’

Text messages were originally 160 characters long, and this limit had its origins back in 1984 with a German named Friedhelm Hillebrand. At a time when mobile phones had barely been invented, he sat home typing out random sentences and questions. He counted the characters and spaces of each, and discovered that nearly every time the total was less than 160 characters.

‘Perfectly sufficient,’ Hillebrand would later recall about his discovery.

Which makes sense to say in retrospect, because at the time, his findings would’ve lacked any useful application, so been only perfectly pointless.

His research also formed the basis of Twitter’s 140 character limit, which launched in 2006. I wonder how Hillebrand knew to include hashtags, insults and hyperlinks to porn in his experiments.

Text Meme 3 Text-Message-Awesome-revengeThe first mobile with texting capabilities was released by Nokia in 1993, with sexting invented moments later, when someone discovered they could use punctuation to draw a pair of boobs.

Predictive text first appeared in 1995, which surprisingly few people saw coming. The first predictive text mishap occurred that very night, when a 14-year marriage was ended after the word ‘hello’ was turned into ‘I’ve been sleeping with your sister’.

Around this time, the first awkward pregnancy portrait and photo of an obese sans-pants person in a Walmart were published on the internet, and the future invention of Buzzfeed became inevitable.

In 2000 Americans were sending an average of 35 text messages a month. Meaning everyone was using text responsibly, for the only time ever, or nobody had discovered it apart from a couple of college girls who used it for epic debriefs.

Around this time the only people still using pagers were doctors and drug dealers. Any doctors who were also drug dealers or cheating on their partners were then easily identified, as they had two pagers.

In 2002, more than 250 billion SMS messages were sent worldwide. So either those same college girls had gone completely mental, or texting had become globally popular.

Despite the earlier introduction of predictive text, the continued use of the alphanumeric keypad meant that ‘text speak’ only increased in popularity. Resulting in a whole generation of children who never learnt to spell properly, and only have jobs in Australia thanks to the mining boom.

Some of the worst school essays ever were also recorded during these years, and the puns on personalised number plates reached new lows. Five pinnacles of this artform include: ‘VGNALVR’, ‘UB6 IB9’, ‘RU 18?’, ‘GLBLWMR’ and ‘NOSUP4U’.

In 2007 the number of texts sent in a month passed the number of monthly phone calls placed by Americans for the Text Meme 4 best-drunk-texts-optimus-500x321first time, and so began the demise of the people actually speaking to each other.

Indeed by 2012, speaking on the phone had become so unpopular that a large percentage of all under 18’s could record a video, upload and edit photos, and play music and Candy Crush, all at the same time. However, if their phone ever actually rang, they freaked out and had no idea what to do.

The iPhone was also released in 2007, and around this time the 160 text message limit stopped being observed. As a result text messages started to contain more words and less point than actual conversations.

In 2010, there were 200,000 text messages sent every minute, and worldwide for that year a total of 6.1 trillion text messages were sent.

How and who counted all those messages? Probably nobody, and I reckon the official counter got bored and just invented a number.

‘How does 250 billion sound to you mate?’ the text counter asked a friend.

‘What’s a billion?’ the friend replied.

‘Exactly. It’ll do.’

‘Also, that seems like a suspiciously exact number,’ said the friend.

‘Shut up. Or don’t you want to go to the pub?’

Text Meme 5 tumblr_lv52a1HTcJ1qk9nrro1_500

Taken from the amazing ‘Texts from Bennett’: http://textsfrombennett.tumblr.com/

Over the years, along with VHS tapes, DVDs, records and USB memory sticks, the text message has outlasted many competing technologies. Many analysts have foretold that the text would be toppled, but that day is yet to arrive.

Other advancements have been relegated to working with the text, instead of replacing it. Much like anyone who plays with Kobe Bryant at the Los Angeles Lakers, or who gets a job on Letterman.

So what next for the ubiquitous text? Well in 2011 over 7.4 trillion texts were sent worldwide, but the number of actual texts being sent in the UK and USA has declined, as people moved to other lower cost messaging services. Such as WhatsApp, Viber and Snapchat.

Which means there are more text messages being sent than ever, they just don’t cost anything so aren’t being counted.  By the same theory, nobody watches Game of Thrones, listens to any music, or uses Microsoft Office.


Xavier Toby is a writer and comedian. (www.xaviertoby.com)

His debut comedy non-fiction book about life on a FIFO mining site is available now: