This research project will examine how humans have dealt with information demanding immediate attention through innovations in short-form, long-distance, text-based messaging technologies beginning the 19th century. Up until the early 20th century, access to these types of technologies, due to cost and proximity, were limited to wealthy individuals and institutional players like militaries and businesses. These technologies, like early telegraphs and animal-powered messaging networks, were faster than the postal service and largely unidirectional, which therefore only accommodated asynchronous communication. In 1860, Paul Reuter, who later founded the news-agency Reuters, used carrier pigeons to deliver news headlines and messages containing stock market prices. Carrier pigeons were also used to deliver messages between battlefields and military bases in wartime through the First and Second World Wars. The 20th century witnessed a surge in volume of asynchronous short-form messaging, as innovations in these technologies democratized access by extending commercial services and products to the public. By the 1920s, telegram services were available and widely used as a faster alternative to the postal service. In the 1950s, early iterations of the commercial pager were designed for use in the medical industry. Later iterations of the commercial pager were adopted for personal use, particularly in the 1980s when wide-area paging and alphanumeric displays emerged. Within the timeframe that this project covers, the 1990s contains the most revolutionary innovation: the emergence of synchronous short-form, long-distance, text-based messaging technologies. Motorola & RIM released two-way pagers with alphanumeric keyboards. Mobile phones adopted alphanumeric keyboards for SMS and eventually displaced the beeper in the late 1990s. Simultaneously, advancements in the Internet and the IRC protocol catalyzed the development of instant messaging clients like ICQ, AIM & MSN Messenger. Synchronous, real-time communication technologies introduced a greater sense of immediacy in short-form messaging, one that is produced by the phenomenon of being “online,” for which users could display their “status.” By the early 2000s, once users logged into instant messaging clients, they could choose the level of availability they would advertise (Online, Appear Offline, Busy, Be Right Back, etc.), and send instant messages to contacts. Chatting, a previously confined to spoken communications, could now be performed through typing on the Internet. Beginning the late 2000s, the smartphone brought Internet-based instant messaging clients to its users. Handheld instant messaging arrived at the expense of agency. People no longer logged in with the intention of making themselves available for messaging and logged out to make themselves unavailable. By virtue of carrying a smartphone, users were constantly online and became commodities in the emerging attention economy. Today, all information transmitted through messaging platforms, at first glance, demands our immediate attention. How does this affect us psychologically? Will the next generation of messaging technology restore our agency?


Key Dates:


1792 – Semaphore/Optical Telegraph


1844 – Samuel Morse transmits the message “What hath God wrought?” via an electrical telegraph + US Government adopts Morse & Vail’s design


1860 – Paul Reuter used carrier pigeons to deliver news and stock prices 


1874 – Rights of the Quadruplex telegraph are sold by Thomas Edison to Western Union


1897 – Great Barrier Pigeongram Service launched in New Zealand


1962 – Bellboy radio, the first commercial system for personal paging is launched


1969 – First message sent on ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network)


1988 – IRC (Internet Relay Chat) created by Jarkko Oikarinen


1992 – First SMS (short message service) message, reading “Merry Christmas,” sent


1996 – ICQ (I Seek You) launched


1999 – First version of MSN Messenger released by Microsoft