Text Messaging

The History of Text Messaging: A Quick Overview

history of text messaging

We could say that the history of text messaging starts in 1984, when Finnish engineer Matti Makkonen conceived the idea of sending text-based messages from one mobile phone to another rather than doing it between pagers. That same year, Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert, two workers at the Franco-German cooperative Groupe Speciale Mobile (GSM) came up with the theory and protocols for “short message service,” or SMS.

So it’s fair to say that the joint efforts of those innovators set the basis for what we know as text messaging. Since then a lot of things have happened until the present day, in which we have two generations that completely incorporated its use into their everyday life. Let’s take a quick look at how texting and messaging evolved from the pagers to the smartphones we all carry in our pockets.

The History of Text Messaging From The Beginning Until Today

The Beginning of Text Messaging

Even though we already set 1984 as the kickstart of the history of text messaging, there were some previous milestones to keep into consideration. The first one worth mentioning is the invention  of the telegraph in 1837. This was the first device that was able to electronically send a text-based message. 

Samuel Morse, the creator of the Morse code, sent the first telegram; which could only travel for two miles. In 1844, Morse was able to extend the telegraph system to 44 miles when he set up the first long-distance communication between Baltimore and Washington. That first message read: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.”

history of text messaging

Another important milestones in this early history of text messaging are:

  • The creation of the first radio transmitters/receivers by Guglielmo Marconi between 1894 and 1895. 
  • The Telex service by the German post office in 1933, which overcame the shortcomings of telegraphs and became available to the public.
  • The sending of ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio waves carrying text message data through ALOHAnet at the University of Hawaii. This set a precedent for today’s wireless networks.

The 80s and the 90s

A year after Matti Makkonen, Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert first efforts, text messaging received something that remains to this day. The typical 160 character limit for SMS messages was established in 1985 by Hillebrand. That limit was set like that so characters could fit onto existing signaling formats back then. 

It wasn’t until the 90s that text messaging really started to take off. The first text message was sent on December 3rd 1992 by a 22-year-old British engineer called Neil Papworth. He sent the message through a computer to a cell phone. What was written in it? “Merry Christmas”. The recipient was his colleague Richard Jarvis, who couldn’t reply for a very simple reason: cell phones back then didn’t have keyboards!

That problem was solved in 1993 when Nokia introduced the first text-friendly cell phone. The Nokia 2110 allowed texting but only to those within the same network. The now super-familiar Autofill was developed in 1995 under the name T9, and made text messaging incredibly faster and swifter. Nokia also introduced the first QWERTY keyboard on a mobile device in 1997, with the debut of their 9000i Communicator.

history of text messaging

Late 90s and Beyond: Text Messaging The Way We Know it

Cross-network texting was finally possible in 1999. It was the final step for texting to become mainstream barely a year later, in 2000. By this time, 35 text messages per person were sent every month in the U.S. College students were among the most frequent users. As text messaging popularity started to take off, TextMagic was founded as the very first company offering SMS marketing and texting software for businesses.

By 2010, text messaging was already mainstream at a global level; to the point of the verb ‘texting’ being added to the dictionary that year. In 2012, the FCC updated the TCPA rules to require prior express written consent to send marketing-related messages via text. The use of smartphones is so massive and important that since 2016 search engine giant Google set mobile-first indexing to rank websites that featured mobile friendly design.

The future of SMS messaging seems to be brighter than ever. Despite the advent and popularity of mobile messaging apps, SMS for marketing and promotional purposes is still the most powerful lead generation channel nowadays. Compared to email or even phone calls, text messages have a 98% open rate and are by far a less disruptive form of communication that can be applied to practically any industry.

And it all started with a ‘Merry Christmas’ message…