A conversation with the person who sent the world’s first text message, 25 years later
25 years ago, on Dec. 3, 1992, a 22-year-old engineer named Neil Papworth typed out the world’s first text message, unknowingly kickstarting one of the most important communication technologies of the century.
“Merry Christmas,” the message said. Its recipient was Richard Jarvis, an executive at Vodafone, who was attending a Christmas party at a nearby hotel.
But Papworth didn’t send this text in a way that you’d recognize as texting now. It wasn’t wasn’t typed out using a touchscreen or that wonky T9 program you had on that slick Motorola Razr. He carefully plunked out his message on the keyboard of a computer in a “cold, windy” server room, as he describes it, at the Vodafone offices in the U.K.
“I always say to people that it was just another day at the office for me and it really was,” Papworth said in a phone interview. “I was just there doing my job. We didn’t know the kind of monster that text messaging was going to turn into. I had no idea. I don’t know if anyone else had any idea, but for me it was just, ‘Get the job done, go home and have a pizza,’ or something like that.”
The first text probably wasn’t quite as dramatic as you’re imagining — you’re picturing one of those half-circle rooms where two dozen NASA employees all throw their arms up in unison at the end of a dramatic countdown or something, right? Papworth said that’s not quite how it happened.
“For me, there wasn’t any whooping and high-fiving and all that kind of stuff,” Papworth said. “For me it was more relief that it had worked.”
Papworth sent the message from a computer to Jarvis’s chunky Orbitel 901 — a mobile phone only by the most generous of standards — which didn’t even have the capability to respond to Papworth’s message to confirm that he’d received it.
“When it was time, someone was on the phone talking to someone at the other side and they said, ‘It’s time, send it now,’” Papworth said. “So, I typed in the message and sent it, and then there was probably like a deathly silence or something, I don’t remember — there’s no silence in a switch room, with all the fans going and all that — but eventually someone gave me the thumbs up to indicate that it had worked.”
Surely we don’t need to tell you that, in the years since, text messaging has exploded. More than 20 billion SMS messages are sent per day. But that’s nothing compared to other non-SMS chat services. For example, on WhatsApp alone, 55 billion messages are sent every day. In 2016, Apple said iPhone users sent as many as 200,000 iMessages every second. Instead of just sending 160 character text messages, we can now send GIFs, pictures, videos and — for better or worse — little talking poops whose expressions match our own.
But Papworth said he doesn’t really use all that. He prefers the original technology he helped craft 25 years ago, in a cold, noisy server room in Berkshire, England.
“For me, I’m often just about the text and not about the emojis and the GIFs and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “... I’m not a big user of all the other chat mechanisms. I often stick to text. I like that.”