The bespectacled Mr. Papworth was a 22-year-old engineer on the job, when he was assigned to do something novel: Send a text message. And so Mr. Papworth, then an employee at a software company in England, typed out the words “Merry Christmas.” that would launch a trillion thumbs. On Dec. 3, 1992, Mr. Papworth was seated before a computer terminal in a machinery room for the Sema company in Newbury, west of London, about to test a new messaging system for the Vodafone network. Vodafone was having a Christmas party in a separate building, and Mr. Papworth, surrounded by colleagues, got down to work. He typed out the 14-character yuletide greeting to a company official at the party and hit “send.”
“I was a little bit nervous. I just wanted everything to work,” Mr. Papworth recalls. Word came back from the Christmas party: The text had landed. Mr. Papworth, said no one realized its potential right away. “Back then, it was just intended to be used like an executive pager, to get a hold of people on the road,” he said. “No one knew it would evolve into such a monster.” It would take another year before phone-to-phone texting began, and since then, texting has exploded.
Text messaging is used as a political and fundraising tool; relief agencies collected funds through text donations after the Haiti earthquake and the Japan tsunami. Texting has empowered activists and grassroots movements and helped mobilize street protests around the globe. Yet for all its power, or maybe because of it, text messaging also has unintended consequences. U.S. congressmen have resigned for sending sexually explicit texts to under-aged pages. British Prime Minister David Cameron was in hot water for embarrassing text messages sent to former newspaper executive Rebekah Brooks, a central figure in Britain’s telephone-hacking scandal. (Equally embarrassing, Mr. Cameron sometimes signed his text messages “LOL” believing it meant “lots of love;” in fact, it is common text shorthand for “laugh out loud.”) In one study of 269 U.S. college students, 91 per cent said they texted during class.