The Text Message Turns 20

The first text message: "Merry Christmas"

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    NEWSLETTERS

    There have been 40 trillion texts sent in the last 20 years.

    "Merry Christmas."

    Twenty years ago today, that simple holiday greeting was the first text message. It was sent by Neil Papworth of Sema Group Telecoms to Richard Jarvis of Vodafone UK, who was at his office Christmas party at the time.

    Papworth, who now lives with his family in Montreal and is still in the telecom game, was 22 at the time he forever changed the course of communications history, but he admits he was clueless as to what he'd done.

    "No, absolutely no idea," he said. "Or, me sending that first message was just a day's work … It was just proof that our software was working. I was more relieved than overjoyed."

    Vodafone, which was the driving force behind texting at the time, was eager to figure out a way to monetize the new technology.

    "The idea back then was that Vodafone was operating most like a paging bureau, where you call up and talk to one of these real people and you'd give them the phone number and tell them the message," said Papworth. "These things were to replace pagers. I remember then thinking people carrying around clunky analog phones and a pager, and now instead of having two devices they can have one."

    Since Papworth sent that first text, more than 40 trillion texts have been sent worldwide, according to Portio Research. That works out to 3.3 texts per day for every person on Earth. Portio also estimates that 2012 alone saw 8.5 trillion texts sent -- generating $231 billion in revenue.

    Texting, like all powerful technologies, has seen its ups and downs. It has been used to save countless lives, raised billions of dollars, scammed who knows how many rubes, spawned competitions (Austin Wierschke won the National Texting Championship in 2011 and 2012, earning $50,000 in prize money each time) and ended the political careers of men like Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and New York Rep. Anthony Weiner.

    It's hard to say how much longer the text message will be such a huge part of our daily lives, but to hear Papworth tell it, he probably won’t be getting inundated with calls in 2032.

    "I think text messaging is gonna be around for a while yet, whether it's another 20 years, I don't know," he said. "Probably not 20 years. To get rid of something that's so ingrained in our lives, that we all use so frequently — why do we use it so frequently? Because it's simple and it works."