The First Text Message Celebrates 25 Years

Dec 4, 2017
Originally published on December 5, 2017 8:11 am
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How you communicate on the phone says a lot about who you are or at least how old you are. Do you talk or just trade messages? And do your messages contain actual words or just pictures? We take a look at the generational divide over texting on this week's All Tech Considered.



First, a short history lesson. This story really begins 25 years ago yesterday, December 3, 1992. A British engineer named Neil Papworth sat down at his desktop computer and typed out the world's first text message. He told his story to the website Euronews.


NEIL PAPWORTH: The first message was Merry Christmas spelled with the full words, not X-mas (ph). It was Christmas.

KELLY: Papworth had been working on a project for the telecommunications company Vodafone. On the receiving end of that Merry Christmas text was Vodafone executive Richard Jarvis. Jarvis read it on his Orbitel 901 cell phone, a phone that weighed more than 4 and a half pounds.

MCEVERS: At the time, mobile phones couldn't respond to text messages, so Jarvis didn't return the greeting. And that was it.

KELLY: So all of that predates NPR's first mention of cell phone text messaging by more than a year. We first talked about it in a story introduced by Alex Chadwick.


ALEX CHADWICK, BYLINE: The Federal Communications Commission is ready for the next development in wireless communications.

KELLY: The FCC was auctioning off radio frequencies to be assigned to new, high-tech paging services.

MCEVERS: Reporter Ancel Martinez described the scene.


ANCEL MARTINEZ, BYLINE: Inside the hotel ballroom, representatives from 29 companies typed in their bids for the new frequencies on computer terminals behind drawn curtains. After leaving the booths, executives place hurried calls on hand-held phones or scribble down notes before quickly returning to private suites. Each company officer must decide which frequency to bid on and how many millions they're worth.

MCEVERS: Martinez then asked the FCC's Robert Pepper to explain how text messaging might change communications.


ROBERT PEPPER: With these new advanced services it's two-way. So for example, if you get a message saying, can we meet for lunch, you can push a button and say, yes, no.

MCEVERS: Just a yes or no - no LOLs, no emojis.

KELLY: Perish the thought, especially if you count yourself a member of Generation Z. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.