Originally published on Technicians Make it Happen August 2019. Below is the full version.
Name: Neil Papworth
DOB: 29th December 1969
Currently living in: Montreal, Canada
From: Reading, UK
Area of work: Computer Science, software development, mobile communications
Without them we… Without Neil, Vodafone may not have won the race to develop the first text messaging service. Since then text messages have brought down governments, led to the development of ‘txt speak’, and changed the nature of how we communicate with each other forever.
On Thursday 3rd December 1992 Neil Papworth, a 22-year-old technician, made history by wishing a colleague “Merry Christmas.” This may seem like an inconsequential greeting, but those 15 characters made up the first ever text message sent to a mobile phone. “I had no idea just how popular texting would become,” Neil says, “and that this would give rise to emojis and messaging apps used by millions. Looking back with hindsight, it’s clear to see that the Christmas message I sent was a pivotal moment in mobile history.”
Neil Papworth was born and raised in Reading, UK. Finding that school wasn’t the best environment for him to learn in, he left aged 16 and went to Bracknell College, completing an Ordinary National Diploma – a technical qualification – in computer studies. In his spare time, Neil became an early convert to dial-up bulletin board systems, an ancestor today’s social media. These bulletin boards required much more computer know-how than simply signing into Facebook, so the obvious next step for Neil was to continue studying computer science.
He started a part-time Higher National Certificate (HNC) in computer science at Slough College studying one day a week from 9am to 9pm. The other four days he worked for Ferranti International in Bracknell as a software engineer. He worked on projects ranging from programming a movable vehicle satellite antenna to implementing software for automated helicopter landing aids. One of the early projects Neil worked on was writing programs to process data output from wind tunnels when they were testing the very first Eurofighter Typhoon models.
After upgrading to, and completing, a Higher National Diploma (HND) in April 1991, Neil joined Sema Telecom’s graduate program thanks to his industrial experience. Neil was 21 with no idea that, despite not yet owning a mobile phone himself, he was about to make mobile phone history.
At Sema, Neil worked as a software engineer on a project to develop mobile network security and a project to create a mobile phone database designed to help track if a phone has been stolen. The experience and knowledge of how mobile phones talked to the mobile networks would be invaluable for Neil’s next project – developing a text messaging service.
At this time, mobile phones were bulky devices that could only make or take calls. Although they did have letters on the number-pads, this was primarily so people could enter names in their phonebooks. By 1992, the idea of a text messaging service was germinating and while some handsets had been designed to receive them, none were able to send them.
Sema, contracted by Vodafone, started out envisioning its messaging system as an advanced form of pager with messages to be sent from a computer. The aim was to allow secretaries to message directors and technicians to contact each other. It was certainly not intended to help organise meetings in the nearest coffee shop with friends as we do now.
Neil was chosen to go to Vodafone’s Newbury site to install, integrate, and test the SMS software for a soft launch and demonstration on 3rd December 1992. So, while Richard Jarvis, a director at Vodafone, was on the stage at the Vodafone Christmas party in a posh hotel on one side of Newbury. Neil was in an office on the other side of town, in front of a computer screen, typing out those historic words, “Merry Christmas”. Neil remembers, “There were people standing next to me, a load of guys in suits on a mobile phone to somebody at the party. After I sent the message somebody nodded at me or gave the thumbs up and said OK, it worked.”
If this seems all very low-key for such an occasion, Neil himself also took the whole thing in his stride. “I always say, for me it was just a relief that it worked,” Neil said. “This was a big demonstration of not only Vodafone being able to do it but of our work as well. And so, if that hadn’t have worked it would have been a bit of egg on face for the company. But it worked OK so that was a relief.”
The success of Vodafone’s texting system meant that it didn’t take long for manufacturers to introduce a feature allowing phones to both receive and send text messages. However, it was still only possible for people on the same network to message each other. This didn’t change until the late 1990s. Also around this time, the introduction of reasonably priced pay-as-you-go phone contracts and smaller phones introduced texting to what would be its most dedicated user base – young people. This led to an explosion in people sending 160-character messages – a strict limit at the time which would inspire ‘txt spk’ such as LOL and ROFL and emoticons such as :’‑) and :-*. Since those early days, text messages have been used to organise protests during the Arab Spring, bring down politicians such as Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and they have changed forever how we run our social lives.
It took Neil until 1995 to be able to afford his first mobile phone. He got it from the Vodafone stand at the Ideal Homes Exhibition at Earls Court. It cost him around £100 for a year’s contract and, despite mentioning he had done work for them, he didn’t get a discount.
After setting up Vodafone’s texting service Neil became a roving technician, setting up texting systems (known as SMS) all over the world from Singapore and Sydney to Seattle and Toronto. “The early to late 90s is a period when I did a lot of travelling for the company.” Neil said, “More phone were coming along, like Vodacom in South Africa, they wanted a SMS so I’d fly out there with a tape cartridge under my arm and they’d have the hardware there and I’d go on site, install the software, configure, test, and integrate it into their network. That is pretty much what I did for loads of companies all around the world.” After that he remained with Sema Group and its successors for many years as a software developer, then a designer, and later a product architect.
Now living in Montreal with his wife and three kids, Neil works in cloud computing as a solutions architect for Onica, working with Amazon Web Services. Despite a successful career in the computer industry that one message, sent on a Thursday lunchtime as a young technician, lives with him to this day. It led to him being featured in a Super Bowl advert, flown to London for a movie premiere, and name-checked as an answer on the US TV quiz show Jeopardy. He has been interviewed many times and had articles written about his achievement in publications as wide ranging as the Times of India and the Montreal Gazette. Despite all this attention, Neil is a reluctant hero, “I do get a kick out of being called a ‘legend’, once a year,” he said, “even if at the time the achievement was nothing remarkable. I was just doing my job.”
In case you were wondering about the different jobs mentioned in this piece here is a very brief general description of each role – these terms can be quite fluid so these definitions may vary from company to company:
- Software developers (sometimes known as software engineers or programmers) are technicians who design, build, and test computer programmes. They may write these from scratch or amend existing ‘off-the-shelf’ programmes to meet the needs of the larger software development.
- Software designers are responsible for designing computer software for a given application. They also write the specifications for the software from which programmers code computer programmes to perform the given functions.
- Software architects (sometimes known as product architects) are responsible for the high-level design and strategic planning of new software products. They set the structure within which the developers and designers operate. This can potentially include the hardware planning alongside the design methodology of the code.
Acknowledgments, references and further reading
A big thank you to Neil Papworth for being willing to talk about his life and career. If you want to read any more about the first text message there are lots of really interesting articles available. A selection of these are listed below. Neil also has a website which includes the story of that first SMS in his own words:
- Tracy McVeigh, Text messaging turns 20, The Observer (2012)
- Vodafone Group, 25 years since the world’s first text message, Vodafone.co.uk (2017)
- Ingrid Peritz, He sent the first text message 20 years ago, and forever changed the world, The Globe and Mail (2012)
- Victoria Shannon, 15 years of text messages, a ‘cultural phenomenon’, The New York Times (2007)
The information for the communication timeline comes from the following sources:
- Tom Geoghegan, Twitter, telegram and e-mail: Famous first lines, bbc.co.uk (2011)
- William E. Gibson, First Cellular Phone Call Was Made 45 Years Ago, AARP (2018)
- Joe McGauley 16 Internet Firsts, From Instagram Posts to Drug Deals, Thrillist, (2015)
- Alyson Shontell, The First Ever Email, the First Tweet, and 10 Other Famous Internet Firsts, Yahoo Finance (2013)
- Nancy Kuenster, History of handwritten letters, handwrittenletters.com