By Robert Frank
The 23 billion text messages that crisscross the world every day—about 8.3 trillion per year or 270,000 per second—started three decades ago with a simple, greeting: “Merry Christmas”.
On December 3, 1992, 22-year-old software architect, designer and test engineer Neil Papworth sent that message from his computer at Sema Group Telecoms to Richard Jarvis at Vodaphone.
“Since mobile phones didn’t yet have keyboards, I typed the message out on a PC…and I sent it to Richard Jarvis of Vodafone, who was enjoying his office Christmas party at the time,” Papworth said. “Texting didn’t really take off until some years later, once handsets were able to both send and receive and people could send SMS to their friends on different networks.”
The breakthrough was part of Sema’s initiative to develop a short message service (SMS) centre for British telecoms giant Vodaphone. Nokia implemented an SMS service a year later on its mobile telephones.
SMS messages were initially constrained to just 160 characters. To conserve space, imaginative users came up with acronyms like LOL (laughing out loud) and used punctuation to create the first emoticons like :). Such forms have entered common parlance and continue to be used today.
A decade later in 2002, the Reading, England, native moved to Montreal, Canada, where Papworth joined Oracle as a software architect for its subscriber database solutions.
“In 1992, I had no idea just how popular texting would become, and that this would give rise to emojis and messaging apps used by millions,” Papworth told Vodaphone on the 25th anniversary in 2016. “I only recently told my children that I sent that first text. Looking back with hindsight, it’s clearer to see that the Christmas message I sent was a pivotal moment in mobile history.”