Text messaging has been around for decades and is a convenience many have grown to take for granted. From developed countries, remote villages, or sparsely populated islands, billions of text messages are sent daily across the globe. As phone services have evolved to cover most inhabitable parts of the world, so has the reach of text messaging.
What led to the invention of this remarkable form of communication, and how has it evolved over the years? Read on to find out as we journey through the fascinating history of this underrated yet revolutionary technology.
Like most breakthroughs in technology, text messaging started out from humble beginnings and, over the course of more than a century, still plays an integral part in our lives. Here’s a detailed timeline of its impressive history.
While some would argue that morse code is not a form of text messaging, it laid out the foundation for modern long-distance text communication. Morse code was developed to transmit information over telegraph wires, not much unlike how text messages transmit information over radio frequencies today.
Developed by American artist and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse in the 1830s, it was a system that represented numbers and letters in the form of dots, dashes, and spaces. Electrical pulses transmitted this code over telegraph wires, a relatively new invention at the time.
Samuel Morse patented his invention in 1837 and pushed to have it funded by the US congress at the time. After showcasing its pioneering capabilities in long-distance communication, it quickly became an indispensable tool for Washington, DC by the mid-1840s. While the official use of the morse code long fell out of favor decades ago, the official telegraph office of Washington, DC stayed in existence until 2007.
The telegraph system revolutionized communication in the US at a pivotal time during the American Civil War. For the first time ever, relatively instant battle reports flashed from the frontlines to the federal government, assisting policymakers in tracking and responding to developments on the battlefield.
Roughly a decade after the end of the American Civil War, the telephone was invented by Graham Bell in 1876. While the advent of audio communication would later cast a long shadow over the telegraph system, both continued to be utilized side by side by most countries across the world as primary forms of communication.
Before World War I, wireless telegraphy was adopted as a means of sending text messages through radio frequency. However, a ‘cable war’ ensued during the war as landline telegrams were favored over wireless telegraphs. Since radio frequencies were far more vulnerable to enemy interception, landlines proved to be a safer and more secure method of communication.
By this point, the increased use of the telephone system pushed telegraphy to a few special niche uses. As more governments relied on radio frequency to communicate, landline telegrams were only once again revived during the Second World War in more advanced forms, such as the German “Telex” system.
After the end of World War II, wireless radio communication became the standard throughout most parts of the world. Although expensive, people could call each other by phone or send physical letters if they wanted to communicate by text.
It was not until 1984 that text messages, in the purest sense, would once again be introduced to society.
In 1984, a German engineer and employee of Deutsche Telekom, Friedhelm Hillebrand, was the first to conceptualize the modern SMS (Short Message Service). While typing random sentences on his typewriter, he observed that almost every random sentence was less than 160 characters. It was on this basis the first SMS limit per message would be set to 160 characters long.
With the help of Bernard Ghillebaert of France Télécom, Friedhelm Hillebrand developed the concept over the years to be optimized for GSM (Groupe Spécial Mobile), a European standard of protocol for cellular networks.
On 3 December 1992, the first SMS message was sent over the Vodafone GSM network in the United Kingdom by software developer Neil Papworth using Vodafone’s GS network. The first SMS text message ever sent was "Merry Christmas."
It was not until 1993 that SMS text messages became commercially available to the common consumer. Initially, it took time for SMS texting to take off, with only an average of 0.4 messages being sent per GSM customer per month in 1995.
Even five years later, the number slowly grew to 35 messages per GSM customer per month. Several factors played a role in the slow uptake of SMS messaging, but one primary one was that cell phone operators were slow in updating their systems to charge SMS fees. Most only allowed SMS texting between users on the same cell network, thereby limiting its usefulness.
In the year 2000 and beyond, text messaging blew up in popularity. Described by The Wall Street Journal as “a new fever,” it quickly became the tool of choice for both normal text communication and marketing.
By the end of 2002, text messaging reached a phenomenal 250 billion messages sent worldwide that year. With popular shows like American Idol pioneering “text-to-vote,” texting continued to explode to its peak in 2007 as the most popular mobile data service in the world.
Text messaging was even used in President Obama’s campaign as part of a “text-to-donate” campaign as well as a way to send bulk campaign messages to voters. In 2010, a whopping 6.1 trillion messages were sent worldwide, averaging roughly 1000 messages per person.
Text messaging quickly became a standard service offered by nearly all mobile service providers. However, with the rise of apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, WeChat, Signal, Facebook Messenger, and many more, the popularity of SMS texting began to slightly wane.
That’s not to say SMS became any less effective, but by 2019 it was competing with these popular messaging platforms in terms of messaging volume. SMS texting is still as common as ever between people, and in 2022 it saw a surge of interest from companies as a powerful tool to reach consumers with product promotions and updates.
Platforms like WhatsApp carry the torch after SMS texting to take messaging to a whole different level. Users can now instantly interact through text and share photos, videos, and audio messages from their phones. Companies can also leverage WhatsApp’s reach much like that of SMS texting, to run promotions and unique campaigns.
So what does the future hold for text messaging? Unless direct brain-to-brain messaging or another alien technology is invented, it’s likely that text messaging will reign supreme as a standard form of communication for many years to come.
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