On Dec. 3, 1992, Neil Papworth sent what is believed to be the first text message ever. "Merry Christmas," he wrote. Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin talks to NPR's Steve Henn about the evolution of the text message in the 20 years since.
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This week, texting turns 20. On December 3, 1992, a British engineer named Neil Papworth sent the first text ever to Richard Jarvis, a Vodaphone executive. The text message arrived during the staff Christmas party. It read: Happy Christmas. Since then, more than two billion people have taken up the texting habit. NPR's Steve Henn joins me now, cell phone in hand likely. Hey, Steve.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Hey, how are you?
MARTIN: I'm doing well. OK. So, it was 1992 - seems like a long time ago. Cell phones were still these newfangled devices. What's the story of how texting was invented?
HENN: Well, actually, the story begins almost a decade earlier. A Finnish cell phone engineer named Matti Makkonen - apology to Finns for my pronunciation - came with the idea for SMS message. Those are short message service, or text messages. The idea hit him at a pizzeria, the story goes, in Copenhagen. He was at a conference on the future of mobile communication. And you have to remember this was really, really early days. And Makkonen actually hasn't made a penny on text messages because he never filed a patent on the system he created.
MARTIN: So, let's talk a little bit about how it works. I mean, why limit it to 160 characters? What was the idea behind that?
HENN: Well, you have to go back to the mid-'80s. So, there was a guy named Friedhelm Hillebrand, who was part of the committee organizing how the mobile telephone system would work. And in the '80s, there was really very limited bandwidth. So, they were trying to figure out how to do this and use the least amount of data and space on the system as possible. So, he sat down at a typewriter and banged out sentences and started counting up the number of characters in the sentence. And he just decided that 160 characters was enough to write a sentence or ask a question. And we've been living with that limit ever since. And, you know, Twitter is based on that limit. That's why there are 140 characters plus your Twitter handle. So, Hillebrand's afternoon with a typewriter lead to hashtags, you know, and even things like star-dollar sign for Starbucks.
MARTIN: Huh. It makes you wonder what he was typing out that day that was 160 characters that he thought, yes, this is a complete thought. No one needs any more characters than this.
HENN: I'm done.
MARTIN: So, I mean, it's been a huge success. This is like global phenomenon, billions of people text. Often in developing countries, texting is even more important than email. How do you think it has changed us? How has it changed our culture in the past couple of decades?
HENN: Well, you know, there's been a lot of handwringing over the years about how texting has led to the death of manners. And, you know, grammarians think that it could undermine literacy on a global scale. On that count, I'm a little bit more optimistic. I think that limits built in texts really spur enormous creativity. You know, the sonnet only has 14 lines. For billions of people, perhaps, a well-crafted text is a thing of beauty.
MARTIN: NPR's technology correspondent Steve Henn. Steve, thanks so much.
HENN: My pleasure.
MARTIN: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.