The modest father of SMS, who had much to be modest about

Only the true inventor would deny his invention? Erm, well, not quite

Pizza had nothing to do with SMS: Shutterstock

Matti Makkonen died last week and was celebrated as the father of SMS. He’s been described as being too modest to acknowledge his involvement. It seems, however, that the story of how Short Messaging came to be is far more complicated than we originally thought, and the system has many fathers.

In fact, not only did Makkonen not invent SMS, he also reneged on an agreement with those who did to stop claiming that he did.

Makkonen’s lie – inadvertent or not – saw him recognised by the Finnish Government as one of the Great Finns, alongside composer Sibelius, and he was awarded the 1999 Economist Innovation Award alongside Tim Berners-Lee and Bill Gates.

The true story is told in the book Short Message Service (SMS): The Creation of Personal Global Text Messaging, edited by Friedhelm Hillebrand with contributions by Finn Trosby, Kevin Holley and Ian Harris. It’s published by Wiley. Hillebrand has a chronology on his website.

The authors were all part of the teams which produced the specifications for GSM, including SMS. The second chapter of the book documents the creation of SMS and treads carefully around the terms “invent” and “discover” – which is relevant, since pagers and other text services had been around long before the development of GSM started in 1982, so the book claims.

Someone using a different technology might therefore be seen as a “pioneer”, rather than an “inventor”.

One different technology that comes into play here is ISDN, the digital phone service which predated broadband. This was able to transmit faster speeds than a regular telephone modem, despite also working on a dial-up basis. A channel was a heady 64kbps and you often got two channels. 128kbps seemed lightning-fast in a world of 14.4kbps modem connectivity.

ISDN had a control channel – a low-bandwidth, 16kbps signalling channel. When the GSM standards were created, ISDN was used to inform some of the decisions. Although it was quite an esoteric feature, there was some discussion of text message handling over ISDN, but no standards emerged.

The SMS inventors approached the ISDN standards people in the name of interworking, but their suggestions fell on deaf ears.

Friedhelm Hillebrand (centre), Finn Trosby (right) and Kevin Holley (left),

Kevin Holley (left), Friedhelm Hillebrand (centre), Finn Trosby (right)

The book debunks quite a bit of SMS folklore, including the idea that it was created by engineers for testing and the story that it was an epiphany in a pizzeria. To try and get to the bottom of who invented SMS, Hillebrand, Trosby, Holley and Harris met with Thomas Beijer, Philippe Dupuis, Thomas Haug, Seppo Tiamen and Matti Makkonen – all people who’d had their names attached to the creation of SMS.

It is not recorded whether they had pizza.

As is often the way with people who have spent their whole lives writing tight technical specifications, it's not exactly riveting narrative. It takes a bit of decoding, so where the official document doesn't name names, we've spoken to those involved and annotated the definitive history of how SMS happened:

  • Text messaging was a known telecommunications service years before the development of GSM started in 1982.
  • Proposals for text messaging as a service for GSM were made by the co-operating Nordic operators, as well as by co-operating German and French operators (France being represented by Bernard Ghillebaert and Germany by Friedhelm Hillebrand).
  • The Nordic operators focused their work on text messaging by using it as access to a message handling system (similar to email). This was standardised by the GSM committee and it led to a technical report on the technical realisation of access to message handling systems (the Nordic person being Finn Trosby).
  • The German and French operators focused their work on Short Message Transmission. The proposed service used a dedicated service centre and transmitted the text messages over existing signalling paths of the GSM telephony system on a lower-priority basis. This transmission method meant that the messages had to be short. Packet length was initially estimated at 128 octets, but this was later optimised to 160 characters – still sufficiently long enough for most personal and professional purposes. The concept was developed in the Franco-German co-operation in the 1983/4 timeframe (again, Ghillebaert and Hillebrand).
  • In a first phase of work from Feb 1985 to the end of 1986, the GSM Committee specified the service features of the Short Message Service. Most contributions came from Germany and France (ditto).
  • From 1987 onwards, the technical realisation of SMS was standardised in a small group called DRAFTING GROUP on Message Handling. The first chairman of this group and the editor of the key technical specification were provided by Norway (later the UK) and the technical work mostly provided by Finland, France, Norway and the UK (Norway: Finn Trosby, UK: Kevin Holley & Alan Cox, Finland: Eija Altonen (the only woman in the history), France: Didier Luizard).
  • The further evolution of the SMS was standardised in the same small group led by the UK, where the technical work was mostly provided by the UK. Examples of enhancements from this period are auto replacement of messages, so called “flash” SMS and voicemail icons, followed by colour and picture capabilities and long SMS.

The meeting concluded that it had been a team effort. What is notable about the agreement is that it doesn’t name names, so the generally held view that the true inventor of SMS was too modest to acknowledge his invention certainly holds some truth. It has been separately reported that no-one on the team had dreamed of the success of SMS, and thought instead that it might steal a little of the pager market.

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