Texting may not be as trendy as social media platforms like Instagram or as intimate as video messaging apps like FaceTime or Skype. However, the humble text message remains one of the most popular ways to communicate.
With approximately eight trillion texts sent every year, Short Messaging Service (SMS) communication has clearly proved its staying power. It’s likely to still be around long after other communication channels and platforms have faded away.
Read on to learn seven fun facts about the world’s favorite messaging system.
1. The first text message was sent more than 25 years ago.
Text messaging has been around for longer than you think. The first text message was sent on December 3, 1992, from 22-year-old engineer Neil Papworth to Vodafone executive Richard Jarvis.
Appropriately enough, given that Jarvis was attending his company’s holiday party at the time, the text read “Merry Christmas.” Interestingly, although the text was received on a mobile phone, it was sent from a desktop computer.
2. The idea of text messaging was developed even earlier.
Eight years before that first text message was sent, the concept of SMS messaging had been proposed by Finnish engineer Matti Makkonen. Makkonen was working for the telecommunications company Nokia at the time. He didn’t believe his idea was a “patentable innovation.” As a result, he decided not to seek a patent for it.
As a result, he has received no profits whatsoever from the staggering success of his invention. However, in later interviews, Makkonen has said that he is happy that the development of the SMS system worked out the way it did.
3. The character limit for text messages was set using a typewriter.
In 1985, Friedhelm Hillebrand, a German engineer who was part of the committee tasked with organizing the burgeoning mobile phone system, attempted to determine how messages could be sent using the smallest possible amount of the system’s limited bandwidth. To do this, he sat down at his typewriter and experimented with typing different sentences and counting the number of characters in each sentence.
In the end, he decided that 160 characters was “perfectly sufficient” for most sentences or questions. This limit is still the length of a single text message today. It has inspired other limited-character platforms like Twitter, which famously limits tweets to just 140 characters to keep things simple and accessible.
4. Text messages can save lives.
In 2008, British surgeon David Nott was volunteering in DR Congo with a medical charity when he found himself having to perform a life-saving arm amputation on a 16-year-old boy. The only catch was that Nott himself had never performed such an operation before.
He texted a colleague in London, who texted back step-by-step instructions for the procedure. Nott followed the instructions to the letter, and the operation was successful with the patient making a full recovery.
5. Text messages are an effective communication method when disaster strikes.
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, where rapid communication is essential but power is out and critical infrastructure is damaged or destroyed, text messages are a life-saving form of communication. This is because texts don’t rely on voice channels for transmission and don’t use enterprise e-mail servers. Instead, they are isolated on a wireless carrier’s control channel.
As a result, texts are able to get through when most other methods of communication fail. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, text messages helped to coordinate helicopter rescues and keep isolated hospitals informed about the status of incoming patients.
6. Text messages can also be highly artistic.
In 2001, The Guardian newspaper in the UK ran its first SMS poetry competition. Attracting nearly 7,500 entries from 4,700 mobile phones, the competition was judged by Peter Sansom and UA Fanthorpe, two of the UK’s most distinguished poets.
The aim of the competition was to encourage the use of text messaging as a creative force. This is an objective it certainly seems to have achieved, given that most of the entrants said they had never written a poem before. Sansom later said that the SMS poetry challenge was “easily the most enjoyable competition” he had ever judged.
7. Texters don’t use as many abbreviations as you might think.
Texts messaging has been criticized for its heavy reliance on shorthand (think abbreviations like “gr8” or “l8r” or acronyms like LOL). However, research indicates communication via text message may not be having the adverse effect on our writing assumed by some.
A study launched in British Columbia in 2011 has revealed that abbreviations are not used in text messages as often as we might think. For example, texters write “See you” four times more often than “C U”.