On December 3rd, 1992 Neil Papworth sent the first ever 15 characters short messaging service (SMS) "Merry Christmas" to one of his colleague Richard Jarvis. This act was made important to mark the occasion with the party but wasn't important enough to invite the author. At that time no person really realized about the importance of the technology they were working on.
22 years and quadrillions of text messages later, SMS can be considered the king of electronic communications. It makes tens of billions of dollars for network providers and connects billions of people around the world. Annual text traffic is expected to reach 9.4 trillion by 2016.
The first text messages were free and could only be sent between people on the same network, but in 1994 Vodafone - then one of only two mobile networks in the UK - launched a share price alert system. The arrival in 1995 of the Tegic (aka T9) system, which created "predictive" texting based on the letters you had typed, meant texting could take off.
As chairman of the non-voice services committee for the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), Hillebrand was tasked with developing a technology capable of transmitting, receiving and displaying text messages. The limited bandwidth available on wireless networks, which at the time were the sole reserve of car phones, meant Hillebrand and his team had to find a data pipeline capable of sending short messages across all cellular carriers and to all mobile phones.
"We were looking for a cheap implementation," said Hillebrand in a 2009 LA Times interview. "Most of the time, nothing happens on this control link… it was free capacity on the system."
Hillebrand's 'perfectly sufficient' character limit was 160, a number now as standard to electronic communications as 24 frames are to movies, or 12 bars are to blues. The golden number was hit upon after studying word-counts on a decidedly low-tech platform: the humble postcard. Most postcards contain less than 160 characters. It was already an intuitive message-length for people, so it made sense to stick with that limit.
When Papworth sent his Yuletide greeting in 1992, the technology had already been in development for seven years. Early GSM handsets did not support SMS, and when they began to, the protocol was only used to inform recipients of a voicemail. It took a further seven years for cross-network SMS to become available.
It took mobile operators a while to "realize the profit they could make from charging more for sending outside the network," according to Papworth.
"I don't think even creators of the GSM standards would have imagined all the uses it has been put to in the last 22 years." - Neil Papworth
Finally, the idea of the short message between devices was here to stay. "Twitter was imagined as a text message service, that's why each tweet has to be so short. The mechanism by which it's delivered will change, but people will still find it convenient to send short messages to each other."