Who Sent the First SMS?
It’s All Show Biz
Many claim to have sent the first SMS. Establishing who actually sent the first one requires more than a quick Google search. These sort of “firsts” tend to be organised media events marking a commercial milestone.
For example, it’s widely accepted that in 1985, British TV comedian Ernie Wise made the first cellular call, over UK cellular networks. It was even the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question.
The first UK cellular call was made by Ernie, but not Wise. Vodafone Chairman, Ernie Harrison, phoned his son half an hour earlier. But Ernie Wise got to make the call for the big unveiling. That’s what the media saw and that became the story. Vodafone now say the first call was from Ernie Harrison to his son.
It was 25 Years Ago Today
So sidestepping the false claims, the first SMS was sent from a PC (over an operational GSM network) by 22 year old engineer Neil Papworth to Richard Jarvis of Vodafone. Richard received it on his Orbitel 901 phone on 3rd December 1992.
The first message
The Long Wait for Overnight Success
After it’s launch in late ’92 it took until the mid to late 1990’s for its wide-scale adoption. History suggests that, after years of neglect, young Generation Xers became early adopters as they saw the potential of text messaging, that older people missed.
It’s a nice story… but it’s not true.
Firstly, it wasn’t until 1995 that there were a substantial number of GSM networks, providing inter-connection of SMS messaging and mobile “pre-paid” (pioneered by Portuguese GSM operator TMN).
Reaching Mass Market
Up until the late 1990s mobile phones were so expensive they were only used by a small minority of business people. Huge reductions in hardware costs in the late 1990’s led to mobile phones becoming financially accessible to the mass consumer market.
Once mobiles became so affordable, parents could give children one, conditions for mass take-off of SMS were in place. Launched March 1998, for many in the 1990’s, the Nokia 5110 (pictured here) was their first mobile phone.
If You Want to Cut Your Phone Bills, SMS
For many, monthly phone bills, especially when calling different mobile networks, could be incredibly expensive. SMS messages cost up to 10 times less than a call.
Wishing to avoid the monthly shouting matches with parents, children quickly mastered text messaging. This change of behaviour, due to cost, is even more impressive when you consider how incredibly awkward the user interface was.
There was no QWERTY keyboard. Using the physical buttons 2-9, each had three letters allocated, which had to be toggled through to select the correct letter. Predictive text did not exist yet.
Despite all this, the relatively low running costs drove SMS messaging volumes into the stratosphere.
Archive Document – 1991
It’s interesting to read, in 1991, how SMS was being viewed, at the point when GSM networks were only just being switched on.
View the paper here presented by Kevin Holley, to IEE Colloquium on GSM and PCN Enhanced Mobile Services in January 1991. It provides a unique view of SMS – long before the first SMS message had been sent.