Earlier this summer I was asked to participate in the Wireless History Foundation’s Wireless Hall of Fame, where I had the pleasure of inducting Friedhelm Hillebrand as one of its newest members. In thinking about my own role as an entrepreneur within the wireless industry, I found it humbling to be amongst the very people who helped inspire me to do more to provide people with access to greater technology. In this connected world, it is important to recognize the individuals who helped shape the history of text messaging and the future of human conversations forever.
Matti Makkonen: Meeting the demand for connection
Consider this: the world sends almost 19 billion text messages every single day. Can you imagine not having the capability to send these quick bits of information to your friends, family or coworkers? If you’re a Millennial or Gen-Z’er, then probably not. But for Baby Boomers and their parents, it’s easy to remember a time when text messaging didn’t exist. It was a Finnish engineer by the name of Matti Makkonen who eventually pushed forward the concept of sending short messages between mobile phones in the 1980s, and he has been credited as the inventor of Short Message Service (SMS), otherwise known as text messaging.
Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert : More than just an idea
It was shortly after the conception of SMS when Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert (a German and French duo) determined the character length needed for text messages to work in 1984. He found that 160 characters was the appropriate standard for mobile telecommunications in order to ensure consistent message delivery. In thinking about character limits, the first text messaging standard helped influence other communication standards that we still have today. For example, Twitter institutionalized 140 characters as the maximum character count for people to effectively share information across its platform (though it was recently updated to 280 characters).
Neil Papworth: Withstanding the test of time
Believe it or not, we are coming up on the 25th anniversary of the world’s very first text message. Briton Neil Papworth texted “Merry Christmas” to Richard Jarvis on December 3, 1992. At the time, Jarvis was a director at Vodafone, and the back story is that he was enjoying an office Christmas party when Papworth’s text message showed up on his Orbitel 901 handset. Now, keep in mind, mobile phones didn’t have keyboards in the early 90’s, so Papworth had to type the message on a PC. But the message was delivered to a mobile phone successfully – proof that information could be shared quickly between people, even if it was just to wish someone a happy sentiment. This may seem like a not-so-big-deal, but really, this single moment set the stage for all the creative ways that we are able to express emotions through text messaging today.
Christopher Sholes: One invention can lead to many
Functionality is one dimension of texting, but design plays a pretty important role, too. Have you ever wondered why mobile phones have the keyboards they do? The QWERTY keyboard we see on computers and mobile phones today was actually inspired by the typewriter – invented by Christopher Sholes all the way back in 1868. According to The Smithsonian, the QWERTY system emerged as a result of how the first typewriters were being used, particularly by telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe Morse code. The alphabetical arrangement of keys was both confusing and inefficient for translating Morse messages, so the keyboards were reconfigured to meet typists’ needs.
The typewriter keyboard evolved over several years before Sholes patented the QWERTY system and entered into a manufacturing agreement with Remington, a gun manufacturer known for its precision machinery. By 1890, Remington had produced more than 100,000 QWERTY-based typewriters in the US. Just three years later, the five largest typewriter manufacturers – Remington, Caligraph, Yost, Densmore and Smith-Premier– merged to form the Union Typewriter Company and agreed to adopt QWERTY as the regulatory keyboard for generations to come, paving the way for it to become standard on our computers and smartphones.
It was an honor to spend time with the Wireless Hall of Fame inductees, all of whom have shaped the development of our communication systems over the past 50 years. I also have a great appreciation for the other faces of texting that helped make it possible in the first place. Keeping people connected is the prime motivation behind Zipwhip, and I look forward to the next 50 years of innovation as we further expand on our connected world.