The History of Texting: from Telegraphs to Enterprise SMS

by Alexa Lemzy | Last updated 11th June 2019

Text message on old mobilephone screen

Information and communication technologies have evolved rapidly over the last several decades. Today’s smartphones are more powerful than desktop computers used in the 1980s and 90s — despite being a fraction of the size.

Smartphones also have many extra features like cameras, GPS, and accelerometers that make them far better communication devices than traditional landline or cellular phones.

For example, to send a simple text message on one of the first cell phones, you had to put your thumbs to work on a tiny 10-number keypad like the one below (and no, autocomplete wasn’t a thing yet). However, with today’s technology, you can send long-winded text messages, images, videos, emojis, and cat GIFs to your friends in the blink of an eye. This technology has come such a long way that it’s worth taking a look back at the fascinating technological and societal developments that shaped the history of texting. These key developments in the timeline are presented below.

The History of Texting (SMS)

Text Messaging Before Phones

1837 – 1844 – The electric telegraph was invented in 1837. It was the first device that could electronically send text-based messages from one location to another. The first telegram, sent by Samuel Morse (who invented the Morse Code), only traveled two miles. But by 1844, Morse had set up the first long-distance telegraph system between Baltimore and Washington — a total distance of 44 miles. The first message sent using the system read “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.”

Electric telegraph

The electric telegraph. Source: Wikipedia.

The First Phone Networks

1933 – The German Reichspost (postal service) unveiled the “telex” service to overcome the shortcomings of telegraphs. Telex was a public switched network of teleprinters that was very similar to today’s telephone networks.

A telex machine

A telex machine. Source: Flickr.

1971 – The University of Hawaii used ALOHAnet to send ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio waves carrying text message data. This technology eventually gave way to today’s wireless networks.

Text Messaging as We Know It

1984 – SMS messaging was first conceived by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert. The first SMS messages were limited to 160 seven-bit characters so they could fit onto existing signalling formats.

A fun fact about the history of texting – Hillebrand argued that while 160 characters doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s actually more than enough characters to convey most messages. To reach this conclusion, he sat at a typewriter and typed out random sentences, counting every letter, number, punctuation, and space. Almost every time his random musings fell within the 160 character limit.

Who Invented Texting?

Hillebrand and Ghillebaert are credited with coming up with the SMS concept. However, some consider Finnish engineer Matti Makkonen the “Father of SMS” for his work at Nokia — though he doesn’t consider himself the inventor of texting due to the large number of engineers involved.

What is SMS?

The term SMS stands for “Short Message Service”. “SMS messaging” and “text messaging” are typically used interchangeably. Originally, SMS messages only contained text; however, SMS messages can now also include multimedia messages (known as MMS) that feature images, GIFs, videos, sound clips, and emojis.

Cat gif

Sending cat GIFs is just one way you can benefit from SMS messaging. Source: Wikipedia.

1992 – Neil Papworth, a 22-year-old test engineer, made texting history when he sent the world’s first text to a cell phone. The recipient was Richard Jarvis, who was attending a Christmas party near Vodafone headquarters in Newbury, England. The text was a heartwarming message that simply read “Merry Christmas”.

1993 – A year later, Brennan Hayden, an engineer for Irish wireless company Aldiscon, sent the first commercial text message. It said “burp,” which had nothing to do with gastroenterology, but instead signified the “birth” of a new form of communication in the history of texting.

Later in 1993, Nokia became the first phone maker to support SMS messages.

One of the first cell phones that could send text messages: Nokia 2110

Nokia 2110 mobile phone
Cell Phones Begin to Transform

1995 – Autocomplete was a key development in the history of texting as well — opening the door to faster texting. The first autocomplete technology was called “T9”. This technology made it quite a bit easier to send text messages using a 10-digit keypad.

1997 – Nokia released the first cell phone featuring a QWERTY keyboard: the 9000i Communicator.

NOKIA 9000i Communicator.

The 9000i had what would be considered a large keyboard for a cell phone, but a small keyboard compared to today’s tablets. Source: Wikipedia.

Text Messaging Goes Global

1999 – Another important milestone in the history of texting was the introduction of cross-network texts. Before 1999, you could only message people who shared the same service provider.

2000 – Texting becomes mainstream with message volumes reaching an average of 35 texts per person per month in the U.S. Texting was especially popular among college students prompting The Wall Street Journal to call texting “a new fever”.

2002 – Text messaging becomes a global phenomenon reaching 250 billion messages sent worldwide in a single year.

Texting Evolves

2003 – SMS messaging found a new purpose when the TV show, American Idol pioneered “text to vote”. Viewers could choose their favorite singer by texting their vote to a number displayed on-screen.

Clay Aiken Waukegan in American Idol TV show.

Text “1” to vote for Clay! Source: Wikipedia.

2006 – Twitter is born. The network’s famous 140-character limit was inspired by Hillebrand, who invented SMS messaging in 1984 (see above). When you add the 20-character limit on Twitter usernames to the 140-character tweet limit, you get 160 characters, which was the original character limit for text messages.

2007 – Texting becomes the most popular mobile data service worldwide and used by 2.4 billion out of 3.3 billion mobile phone users. The number of texts sent surpassed the number of calls made for the first time. Apple released the first iPhone the same year.

2008 – The United Way launched the first “text to donate” campaign, which was featured during Superbowl XLII. In the same year, Obama famously used a ‘text to donate campaign’ to help him win the election. He also used SMS software to send bulk text messages and grow his grassroots campaign.

Texting in the Modern Era

2010 – At this point in time, text messaging was a mainstream practice in many cultures. In fact, the verb “texting” was added to the dictionary in 2010 – no surprise given that the number of text messages sent worldwide reached 6.1 trillion that year (roughly 1,000 messages per person)!

2013 – Internet-based mobile messaging services like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, iMessage, and Viber caught up with SMS messaging in terms of overall popularity and message volume.

2019 – While mobile messaging apps continue to grow in popularity, they have not extinguished SMS messaging, which is still a growing market. For example, the market for enterprise SMS is increasing at 4% per year as companies continue to look to the medium as a new way to connect with customers.

The future of SMS – Businesses will increasingly use SMS software to interact with customers. SMS messages are already used to ask for feedback, send parcel delivery notifications, carry out security authorizations, confirm appointments, and so much more. These business-to-consumer text messages are often called “SMS notifications”, and are usually sent to announce special events or in response to transactions.

Public institutions are also increasingly turning to SMS notifications as a way to send important public safety information or alerts.

Interested in SMS Marketing?

Marketing via SMS has many advantages over mobile or email marketing. For one, SMS notifications have much higher open and response rates (8x higher than email). Also, customers don’t have to install any new apps to receive SMS notifications — every smartphone is equipped to send and receive SMS messages right out of the box.

Read more, hear about the benefits of SMS messaging and how enterprise clients can use text messages to better engage with customers.

Alexa
Alexa Lemzytwitter
Author

Customer support person. Interested in customer success, growth, marketing and technology. Passionate about content, reading and travel.