Tech Time Warp: The first text message sent 30 years ago carried a timeless sentiment
Most of us send dozens of meaningless texts every day: ETAs, LOLs, emojis and snarky screenshots. With unlimited data plans, it’s easy to be fast and loose with SMS messaging. But the first text message—sent just over 30 years ago, on Dec. 3, 1992, carried a timeless sentiment: Merry Christmas.
The British telecommunications company Vodafone had hired 22-year-old software programmer Neil Papworth to help develop a text messaging service. To test his work that fateful Dec. 3, Papworth sent the “Merry Christmas” message from his computer to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis, who was attending a holiday celebration.
Although Jarvis could read the message on his 4.5-pound Orbitel 901 cell phone, he didn’t have the capability to respond. Instead, he called Papworth to confirm receipt.
The message spelled out “Christmas” instead of using “X-mas,” even though the first text messages were limited to 160 characters, leading to the rise of text-speak and use of the emoticons that predated emojis. Within a year of Papworth’s merry message, texting had evolved to offer yes/no replies on the same network. It took another seven years for the ability to exchange messages across multiple cell networks.
In December 2021, an anonymous buyer at a French auction house purchased the Merry Christmas text as an NFT for nearly $150,000 in cryptocurrency, with the proceeds benefiting the United Nations Refugee Agency. Due to French laws surrounding the sale of intangible goods, the buyer received a digital frame with the code and communications protocol, as well as a 3D animation of the “Merry Christmas” message.
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