Before the widespread availability of mobile phones and later smartphones, pagers, also known as beepers, were widely used to alert their users that someone needs to get in touch with them. The history of pagers is intertwined with the history of Motorola (motorola pager), an American multinational telecommunications company founded in 1928.
An Early History of Pagers
The concept of the pager can be traced back to the year 1928. A Detroit policemen, Kenneth Cox and Robert L. Batts, devised a one-way radio, allowing the local police department to quickly dispatch patrol cars to the scene of the crime. Limitations of this first-ever radio system were dramatic, but it demonstrated the tremendous usefulness of portable communication systems.
Two decades later, in 1948, Alfred J. Gross, a lifetime radio enthusiast, patented the first telephone pager device. His pager was effectively a modified, one-way version of his FCC-approved two-way communications system. Despite Gross’ attempts to market the pager to doctors and even telephone companies, the device wouldn’t become publicly available until Motorola adapted the concept, coining and single-handedly popularizing the term “pager.”
According to Motorola’s official website, “Motorola’s 1955 Handie-Talkie radio paging system provided individual paging inside hospitals, factories, and office buildings, reducing noise from public address systems. The system included a selector console, an FM transmitter, and individual Handie-Talkie radio paging pocket receivers.”
These first pagers looked nothing like their counterparts from the 1980s. Their weight averaged at around 6 ounces, their range was limited to 25-mile radius, and physicians had to pay about $12 a month to subscribe to the radio paging service, as explained by C. Ennis in his article titled <href=”#v=onepage&q&f=true”>Pocket Radio Pages Doctor Night and Day. “Under the new system, a patient dials his doctor’s number. If the doctor doesn’t pick up his phone, the service takes the message. Then, if the message is urgent, the doctor’s code number is immediately broadcast on a special radio frequency assigned to Telanserphone, Inc.,” wrote Ennis.
Compared to modern smartphones, one major advantage of early pagers was the battery life. Some of the first pagers were powered by hearing-aid batteries, which lasted about six months before they had to be replaced.
The Rise of Mobile Phones
The first successful consumer pager was the Motorola Pageboy. Released in 1974, the pager used UHF frequencies from 464 to 475 MHz and was powered by a rechargeable 4.4 V mercury or 3.6 V NiCd battery. Even though the pager lacked a display and storage, it quickly began to replace public announcement systems, such as those used in hospital and factories.
Just a year later, in 1975, Motorola’s Pageboy II was introduced. It operated on several different frequencies, depending on the indented market, and it was noticeably smaller than the previous version.
As the technology improved, pagers became smaller, more capable, and more useful. Until the 1990s, most pagers had only a short communications range, limiting them to use inside a single building or area. It’s estimated that there were over 3 million users of pagers worldwide by 1980.
After the introduction of wide-area paging, the number of users of pagers climbed to over 60 worldwide. It would most likely continue to increase even further if it wasn’t for another invention by Motorola. During the early 1970s, Motorola publicly demonstrated the world’s first portable cellular telephone and system in New York City, calling it Motorola DynaTAC (DYNamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage).
“The world’s first commercial handheld cellular phone, the Motorola DynaTAC phone, received approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission on September 21, 1983. The 28-ounce (794-gram) phone became available to consumers in 1984,” states Motorola’s official website.
The phone offered 30 minutes of talk time, the ability to dial or recall of one of 30 phone numbers, and it was priced at almost $4,000 (about $10,000 in present-day terms). Despite these glaring shortcomings and thanks to its much smaller successor, Motorola MicroTAC, two-way communication and cellular phones made pagers obsolete for general use.
The Pager Is Still Alive
As mobile phones took over, the demand for pagers has greatly decreased from its peak in the 1990s. In 2001, Motorola announced their plan to stop making pagers.
Currently, the only pager the company offers is the <href=”#tabproductinfo”>Motorola MINITOR VI, a two-tone voice pager for fire departments and other organizations that need to react quickly in times of emergency. It offers wide- and narrow-band programmable channel spacing, expanded storage space for voice messages, customizable alert tones, LED announcements, flexible battery options, and IP56 water and dust protection.
These features, among others, make it ideal for emergency services and public safety personnel. “Paging has become mostly a critical messaging device best used when other technologies either don’t fit the situation or simply won’t work that effectively, or at all,” says Garry Fitzgerald, chair of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association and CEO of PageNet. Dr. Robert Wu, an internal medicine physician with the University Health Network, adds, “Pagers are still viewed by many as the most reliable form of communication.”
The paging industry generated $18.5 million in revenue in 2013 in Canada and $2.1 billion in revenue in 2008 in the United States. The report released by the independent panel reviewing the impact of Hurricane Katrina on communications network highlighted the need to have a dependable multi-channel communication system in place that could be used by all responders should similar large-scale network damage and outage ever occur again.
“Two-way messaging pagers could be a lifeline if cellular networks are knocked out or overloaded in the immediate aftermath. Paging systems often use multiple base transmitters to ‘simulcast’ a signal on the same radio frequency, which, combined with the use of satellite communications, can make the beeper a more reliable tool,” writes Lucas Power for CBC News.