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The History of Pagers
Image credit: Julia Bujalski

They Were First Used in a Hospital

The first pager-style system was created for the police in the 1920s, when a patrolman partnered with an engineering student to create a one-way radio transmission device that was later successfully fitted into a patrol car. Then in 1949, Al Gross patented the first true pager. His device worked by sending an audible alert to the person carrying it, and despite concerns that the tones it emitted might distract doctors or disturb patients, it was put into use at New York City’s Jewish Hospital in 1950. At the time, the pager could only be purchased by businesses.

They Underwent Many Improvements

In 1958, the pager was approved for individual use. In 1959, Motorola coined the term “pager” and debuted the first commercially available model. Motorola’s pager worked by receiving and conveying short radio messages. In 1960, another innovation in pager technology took place when John Francis Mitchell created the first transistorized pager. In 1964, Motorola came out with the Pageboy I, the first consumer tone-only pager. Tone pagers played a specific tone for different messages, allowing the user to instantly know what action was needed. For example, a special tone might indicate that the user should report to the ER right away. By the 1970s, tone and voice pagers had hit the market; these devices relayed a short audio message after the tone played. This allowed extra information to be shared quickly. For example, after the tone played, a doctor might hear the message, “Code Blue in the ICU!” and be better prepared for the situation.

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They Took Off in the 1980s

By 1980, there were over 3.2 million pagers being used worldwide. However, pagers still had a very short range and were mostly used for communications between staff members in a specific building, such as a hospital, or by people living within a small geographic area, such as a city neighborhood. It was only after wide-area paging was introduced that personal use of these devices truly took off. Wide-area paging allowed pages to be sent over radio waves across a city, state, or even a country. While today this might seem like a standard feature, at the time it was a groundbreaking capability. The 1980s also saw the introduction of numeric display pagers that displayed a code instead of playing an audio message, as well as the introduction of alphanumeric display pagers, which could send text messages.

The Cell Phone Killed the Pager…Or Did It?

In the 1990s, two-way pagers featuring QWERTY keyboards were introduced, allowing message recipients to reply to the page directly on the device. But by the early 2000s, cell phones had begun to replace pagers as a method of communication. However, the pager may not be as defunct as many people believe. Pagers are still used in select hospitals across the world. They’re also sometimes used by public safety officers. In fact, pagers were originally developed to serve these populations, and while some say they may finally be on their way out, pagers still continue to play a role in critical communications today.

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