#TBT: Neil Papworth - the Technician who sent the 1st text

Name: Neil Papworth

DOB: 1969

From: Reading, UK

Area of work: Computer Science, Software Development, Mobile Communications

What they did:

On Thursday 3rd December 1992 Neil Papworth, a 22-year-old technician, made history by wishing a colleague "Merry Christmas." The 15 characters of that casual greeting made up the first ever text message sent to a mobile phone. “I had no idea just how popular texting would become and that this would give rise to emojis and messaging apps used by millions” Neil says. “With hindsight, it’s clear to see that the Christmas message I sent was a pivotal moment in mobile history.”

Born and raised in Reading, UK, Neil left school aged 16 to complete what was known at the time as an Ordinary National Diploma (OND) in computer studies. Meanwhile, in his spare time, Neil became an expert in dial-up bulletin board systems, an ancestor to today’s social media. His passion for this led him to pursue further qualifications in computer science.

While studying part time for a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in Computer Science, he worked for Ferranti International in Bracknell as a Software Engineer contributing to projects ranging from programming a movable vehicle satellite antenna to software for automated helicopter landing aids.

“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.”

After completing a Higher National Diploma (HND) in April 1991, Neil joined Sema Telecom’s graduate program. 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 1991, 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 was contracted by Vodafone to create a 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.

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 03 December 1992. When it came to the live test, Richard Jarvis, a director at Vodafone, was on the stage at the Vodafone Christmas party in a posh hotel on one side of Newbury.  At the same time, 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.”

It wasn’t long before the success of Vodafone’s texting system prompted manufacturers to introduce a feature allowing phones to both receive and send text messages. By the late 1990s the introduction of affordable phone contracts and smaller phones led to an explosion in people sending 160-character messages – in ‘txt spk’ such as LOL and ROFL and emoticons such as :'‑) and :-*.

It took Neil until 1995 to be able to afford his first mobile phone. After setting up Vodafone’s texting service, Neil became a roving technician establishing texting systems (known as SMS) all over the world from Singapore and Seattle to Sydney and Toronto.

Now living in Montreal with his wife and three kids, Neil works in cloud computing as a solutions architect. That one message Neil sent on a Thursday lunchtime as a young technician still influences his life today. He’s featured in a Super Bowl advert, attended movie premieres and been interviewed countless times by publications from all around the world. 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.”

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.

To learn more, please visit: Andy Connelly's #technicianjourney Blog


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