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The First Text Message, Sent Twenty Years Ago, Was ‘Merry Christmas’

Text messaging turns twenty - celebrating two decades of helping people plan where to meet, wish happy birthday, break up, make up, and generally communicate without actually having to talk to one another

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Image: Joi

Text messaging turns twenty this week: since 1992, the technology has been helping people fight, plan where to meet, wish happy birthday, share random thoughts, break up, make up and generally communicate without actually having to talk to one another.

The first text was sent two decades ago, on December 3rd,  by a software engineer named Neil Papworth. He texted the director of Vodafone, Richard Jarvis, who got the words “Merry Christmas” delivered to his Orbitel 901—a giant clunking phone compared to today’s cell phones.

CNN writes about the considerable growth in texting since that fateful day:

Six billion SMS (short message service) messages are sent every day in the United States, according to Forrester Research, and over 2.2 trillion are sent a year. Globally, 8.6 trillion text messages are sent each year, according to Portio Research.

The Chicago Tribune writes:

According to a study by Experian, a research and analysis firm, 85 percent of adults 18 to 24 in the U.S. send text messages. On average, they send and receive nearly 4,000 messages each month. That’s followed by adults 25 to 34, about 80 percent of whom send and receive more than 2,000 messages every month. Even adults 55 and older are sending and receiving about 500 text messages on a monthly basis, though only about 20 percent of them text.

But texting might be past its golden years, as the rates of text messaging have been declining due to free services like iMessage and Facebook chat. CNN again:

It seems tacky to bring this up on its birthday, but this may also be the year the text message peaks. After two decades of constant growth, text messaging is finally slowing down as people move to smartphones and use third-party messaging tools to circumvent wireless carriers’ costly per-text charges.

The BBC did an interview with an SMS pioneer, Matti Makkonen. They did that interview by text.

More from Smithsonian.com:
Text President Lincoln

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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