The Text Message Turns 20

by Jordan Richardson on December 4, 2012

On December 3, 1992, Neil Papworth was charged with a task that would vault him into the history books forever: he was to send the first SMS message.

The 22-year-old test engineer for Sema Group Telecoms in the United Kingdom may not have had any idea that his first Short Message Service message would’ve taken off so considerably. He may not have had any clue that SMS messaging would become the communications choice of millions of younger users. He may not have had any inkling that text messaging in that form would’ve even evolved into its own language.

Yet here we are, with shards of phraseology like OMG and WTF filling the modern lexicon with almost dictionary-ready immediacy.

Text messaging has since blossomed into not only a veritable art form but a powerful democratic tool in and of itself. It’s capable of voting a shaky singing contestant to victory (or near-victory). It can bring down government officials. It can send tweets across the social networking sphere. And now it has evolved to the point where it can even include pictures of one’s private vicinity, sometimes for all the world to see.

Thanks to a smaller keyboard and some creative usages, SMS messaging has probably had a damaging effect on language the likes of which the world has never seen. Things like CamelCase, also known as medial capitals, have probably emerged because of text messaging.

While shorthand rose out of Internet chatrooms and even bulletin board culture (yes, that’s a real thing), SMS messaging really brought it to the fore thanks to space constraints and a “need” to send out messages at the speed of light.

Texting while driving predictably became an issue, with users somehow deciding, at least temporarily, that it was safer to shoot off a text message than it was to fully engage in a cell phone conversation behind the wheel of a one-ton deathtrap. Despite research suggesting that texting while driving actually had a greater negative impact than driving while drunk, some still insist that texting behind the wheel is perfectly safe.

Texting has had effects on political matters, both to positive and negative effects, and celebrities have had nude pictures of themselves “outed” through so-called sexting scandals.

As you can tell, SMS messaging has shaped our world in amazing fashion over the last 20 years. Maybe Papworth knew that his first SMS message would have a profound impact on the world and how we communicate with one another. Maybe not.

And what was that first SMS message? In simple yet powerful prose, Papworth offered his 14-character salutation to a company official at a Vodafone party in a different building. “Merry Christmas,” it read.

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