Twenty years ago today, the world’s first text message travelled from a computer to a phone and it changed the way we communicate in the process.
The sender of that first ever text was Neil Papworth, a Montreal native who was working as an engineer for British software company Vodafone. He used a computer to send the following message to his boss who was in another building for a company party: “Merry Christmas.”
“Back then, it was just intended to be used like an executive pager, to get a hold of people on the road,” Papworth tells The Globe and Mail. “No one knew it would evolve into such a monster.”
He was just 22 at the time.
In the early days, though, text messaging was slow to catch on as most phones didn’t have the built-in capabilities to text. That changed with advanced technologies and the proliferation of pay-as-you-go mobile phones. “Reports estimated that the total number of SMS sent globally tripled between 2007 and 2010, from about 1.8 trillion to a staggering 6.1 trillion,” writes Discovery News.
Initially, text messages could be only 160 characters long, leading to a new and specialized language. By 2001, The Telegraph technology correspondent Robert Uhlig was writing about how text messages have “spawned their own truncated language” and he gave advice to users about how to cut their messages down to size.
Here’s a sampling of Uhlig’s advice from the early days of text messaging in 2001, some of which holds true and some of which seems comical a decade later:
The percentage sign is used for the “oo” sound — sk%l is school, and c%l is cool. The ampersand replace the “and” sound so that firsthand becomes 1sth&, and a dollar sign substitutes for double s — embarrass is MbR$.
Added to this convention are abbreviations derived from the internet. IMHO, for example, stands for In My Humble Opinion; LOL is Laughing Out Loud; IANAL is I Am Not A Lawyer But . . .; JM2p is Just My Tuppence Worth.
The final ingredient, “emoticons”, is a convention of symbols used to convey meaning. In most cases they must be viewed sideways. To show laughter :-) is typed, the symbols ;-) signify a wink or joke, and for oops :-O is used.
Papworth, the man behind the first text, has since returned to Montreal where he lives with his wife and three kids.