Tech History: The Pager

Long before email and long before texting, there were pagers, portable mini radio frequency devices that allowed for instant human interaction. Invented in 1921, pagers or “beepers” as they are also known, reached their heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. To have one hanging from a belt loop, shirt pocket, or purse strap was to convey a certain kind of status,

The First Pagers

The pager has been around for a while now. The first paging-like system was developed by the Detroit Police Department way back in 1921! However, it was not until 1949 that the very first telephone pager was patented. The inventor’s name was Al Gross, and his pagers were first used in New York City’s Jewish Hospital. Al Gross’ pager was not a consumer device available to everyone. In fact, the FCC did not approve the pager for public use until 1958. The technology was for many years reserved strictly for critical communications between emergency responders like police officers, firefighters, and medical professionals.

Motorola Corners the Market

In 1959, Motorola produced a personal radio communications product that they called a pager. The device, about half the size of a deck of cards, contained a small receiver that delivered a radio message individually to those carrying the device. The first successful consumer pager was Motorola’s Pageboy I, first introduced in 1964. It had no display and could not store messages, but it was portable and it notified the wearer by the tone what action they should take.

There were nearly 3.2 million pager users worldwide at the beginning of the 1980s. At that time pagers had a limited range, and were used mostly in on-site situations—for example, when medical workers needed to communicate with each other within a hospital. At this point, Motorola was also producing devices with alphanumeric displays, which allowed users to receive and send a message through a digital network.

By 1994, there were over 61 million pagers in use, as usage of the pager expanded out of the hands of doctors and engineers, and into the hands of the general public.

But the 1990s proved to be the high point for the pager, and while they are still in use today in certain sectors such as healthcare and the emergency services, the mobile phone and more latterly the smartphone has become the dominant communication tool of our age.

So, what is it?

Well a pager was a small wireless telecommunications device that could receive and display numeric messages. Prior to the 1970s however, pagers could only play a tone, but a doctor for example would know what action he or she had to take upon hearing that tone, such as return immediately to the hospital.

How pagers work

The paging system is not only simple, but it’s also reliable. One person sends a message using a touch-tone telephone or even an email, which in turn is forwarded to the pager of the person they want to talk to. That person is notified that a message is incoming, either by an audible beep or by vibration. The incoming phone number or text message is then displayed on the pager’s LCD screen.

Going the way of the Dinosaur?

While Motorola stopped producing pagers in 2001, they are still being manufactured. That’s because even today’s smartphone technologies can’t compete with the reliability of the paging network. A cell phone is only as good as the cellular or Wi-Fi network off of which it operates, so even the best networks still have dead zones and poor in-building coverage.

Pagers also instantly deliver messages to multiple people at the exact same time—no lags in delivery, which is critical when minutes, even seconds, count in an emergency. Finally, cellular networks quickly become overloaded during disasters. This doesn’t happen with paging networks.

So until cellular networks become just as reliable, the little “beeper” that hangs from a belt remains the best form of communication for those working in the critical communications fields.

Timeline of the pager

  • 1921: The first-pager like system was used by the Detroit Police Department when they successfully put a radio-equipped police car into service.
  • 1949: The very first telephone pager device was patented by Al Gross and was used by New York City’s Jewish Hospital starting in 1950. Even though it wasn’t yet called a pager, the device had already found one of its primary niches: critical communications. Despite Gross’ many innovations (the walkie-talkie and CB radio in addition to the pager, among others), all of his patents expired by the 1970s. But he didn’t hold any resentment that he never profited from his inventions. “They have “permeated our society,” he said in 2000, a year before his death, “and I’m delighted.”
  • 1959: The term “pager” was coined by Motorola.
  • 1960: John Francis Mitchell combined elements of Motorola‘s walkie-talkie and automobile radio technologies to create the first transistorized pager.
  • 1964: Motorola began its 40-year reign as the dominant leader in the paging space with the introduction of the first consumer tone-only pager, the Pageboy I. With a tone-only pager, the recipient just received a single tone and knew what action was required. For example, a physician would know he should go directly to the ED or call the hospital operator for further information.
  • 1970s: Tone and voice pagers were invented—after the tone, the pager relayed an audio message. This was a step forward from the tone-only pager because the recipient was immediately given more information, such as “Code Blue in ICU.”
  • 1980: There were about 3.2 million pager users worldwide, but paging still had a limited range (local-area pagers), and were primarily used for critical communications on a specific site, i.e., clinicians within the hospital.
  • 1980s: Wide-area paging was invented, allowing pages to be conveyed over radio waves across a city, state, or even a country. Paging use explodes, becoming popular among consumers for personal use.
  • 1980s (early): Numeric display pagers were introduced and helped keep hospitals quiet because messages weren’t played aloud—instead, the numeric display showed a number on top of the device that served as either the extension to call or an internal code for a predetermined action. You could also initiate pages through a telephone Motorola Tango
  • 1980s (mid): Alphanumeric display pagers were introduced. They could send a text message through a digital network and initiate in a variety of ways, including operator dispatch, IXO (a device used for sending alphanumeric pages via Telelocator Alphanumeric Protocol (TAP)), and computer.
  • 1990s (late): Two-way pagers, or pagers that included QWERTY keyboards, were introduced so message recipients could respond to the page directly from the device. Many major hospitals and health systems still employ two-way paging, but one-way pagers remain more popular.
  • 1994: There were 61 million pagers in use, largely because pagers are much more affordable than any other mobile communication method.
  • 1995: Motorola introduced the world’s first two-way pager, the Tango two-way personal messaging pager. It allowed users to receive text messages and e-mail, and reply with a standard response. It also could be connected to a computer to download long messages.
  • 1996: Research In Motion (now known as BlackBerry) introduced the [email protected] Pager, which allowed users to receive and send messages thanks to its full keyboard and graphical display.
  • 2001: Motorola and Glenayre, the dominant paging equipment manufacturers, began to exit the paging space.
  • 2004: USA Mobility was formed from the merger of Arch Wireless, Inc. and Metrocall Holdings, Inc., combining the two leading independent paging and wireless messaging companies in the United States.
  • 2007: USA Mobility acquired full ownership of GTES, which provided rights to the Glenayre IP and software source code associated with the GL3000 and other Glenayre product lines.
  • 2011: USA Mobility acquired Amcom Software, creating a company at the forefront of critical communications.
  • 2012: USA Mobility took action on behalf of customers to ensure service continuity to replace the aging Glenayre products. USA Mobility led development of new software based on the Glenayre source code and introduced off-the-shelf server hardware and Open Systems Linux OS.
  • 2014: USA Mobility and Amcom Software came together under single identity and new, exciting brand: Spok. Spok delivers over 100 million messages each month for its customers.
  • 2015: Spok introduced the T5, an alphanumeric pager with an encrypted paging option. With secure messaging capabilities and display-lock security features, this device provides a powerful tool for healthcare and emergency response communication.
  • 2016: Spok unveils the T52 pager, a two-way pager with encrypted capabilities. With the enabled encryption service from Spok, the T52 was the only two-way pager on the market to support secure messaging and help healthcare organizations meet HIPAA compliance requirements.
  • 2017: The Journal of Hospital Medicine reported pagers remain the technology most commonly used by clinicians, and few hospitals have fully implemented secure mobile messaging
  • 2018: Spok surveyed more than 300 healthcare professionals about their organizations’ mobile communication methods. Pagers remain a relatively popular option, with 56% using pagers as part of their communication methods.
  • 2019: The National Health Service in the U.K. ordered the removal of pagers by the end of 2021. As news of the ban and the #purgethepager hashtag spread, NHS employees took to Twitter to outline the many reasons pagers remain popular among care teams and they supported pagers as crucial tools to coordinating and delivering patient care.