Pager History Origins of Telecom

Pager Use Over 100 Years

100 Years of the Pager

When was the last time you saw someone wearing a pager? Largely a relic of the past, a few professions still rely on pagers for alerts including surgeons, nuclear engineers, and emergency responders. While pagers had their heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, their use dates back much further into the 20th century. Here’s a brief history of the pager.

Pager of the 1920s

Pagers trace their roots to one-way radio, which first came into existence in the 1920s with the Detroit Police Department leading the way. Kenneth Cox, Walter Vogler, and Bernard Fitzgerald, all Detroit patrolmen and all amateur radio buffs began tinkering with radio sets they installed in a Model T police car. Cox later partnered with Robert L. Batts, an engineering student, to build a one-way radio receiver and antenna. In 1928, their one-way radio was installed and the Detroit Police Department began dispatching patrol cars by radio. Other police departments followed suit.

Pagers of the 1940s and 1950s

In 1949, Al Gross, who also invented the walkie talkie, cordless telephone, and CB radio, patented the first telephone pager device. It wasn’t called a pager just yet. The device was pocket-sized and included circuitry that responded selectively to specific signals. Gross showed his device to healthcare professionals at a medical convention in Philadelphia in 1949 but was met with skepticism. Most featured that the device would either update patients or interfere with their golf games! In 1950, Gross’s telephone paging system was implemented in New York’s Jewish hospital.

In 1959, the term “pager” was finally coined when Motorola entered the market with a personal radio communications device. This device was about half the size of a deck of playing cards.

Pagers of the 1960s and 1970s

Motorola’s 1964 PageBoy 1 was the first successful consumer pager. It alerted users with a tone.

Pagers of this era came to be known as “beepers” as that’s exactly what they did. They beeped you with an audible tone. A series of different tones meant that different meanings could be attached to the tone type. For example, a short beep might mean, “incoming ambulance” whereas a long tone might mean “call the dispatch desk.” Pagers during this time also had a limited range, making them useful in hospitals and buildings.

Voice pagers arrived, improving the practical use of pagers, albeit still within an onsite network. With voice pagers, instead of just an alert telling the user to call in to the dispatch desk for details, the pager relayed audible instructions such as “you’re needed in room 2.” Numeric pagers soon followed and were preferred over voice because they were more discreet. At this time, the displays were small and limited. Either the phone number the receiver should call would be displayed or an internal code for a predetermined action.

Pagers of the 1980s and 1990s

By the 1980s, wide area paging had arrived. This allowed pages to be transmitted via radio waves across wide distances — across cities, states, and the country. The popularity of pagers rose as a result. Businesses of all types recognized the value of pagers and equipped their field technicians and employees with pagers. Even drug dealers got into the act.

Alphanumeric pagers soon arrived, allowing dispatchers or pager callers to enter a text message. Now, instead of using internal codes, it was possible to send typed instructions. At this point, paging was still a one-way affair. The end user could receive the message but had to find a phone and make a call to respond in any way. In the late 1990s, two-way pagers appeared, enabling users to respond back directly from their pagers. Motorola’s Tango two-way pager could even receive email. In 1996, Research in Motion (BlackBerry)’s Inter@active Pager arrived complete with a QWERTY keyboard and graphical display.

The Death of Pagers

By 2001, paging manufacturers began exiting. It had become clear that new technologies were making pagers all but obsolete.