Alone in a room in his home in Bonn, Germany, Friedhelm Hillebrand sat at his typewriter, tapping out random sentences and questions on a sheet of paper.
As he went along, Hillebrand counted the number of letters, numbers, punctuation marks and spaces on the page. Each blurb ran on for a line or two and nearly always clocked in under 160 characters.
That became Hillebrand’s magic number — and set the standard for one of today’s most popular forms of digital communication: text messaging.
“This is perfectly sufficient,” he recalled thinking during that epiphany of 1985, when he was 45 years old. “Perfectly sufficient.”
While that’s a cute story that makes for a good article, it sounds like the real reason for the 160-character limit was more because the data channel’s packets had 128 bytes available for this sort of use and they restricted the character set (to a subset of 7-bit ASCII, I believe):
“We were looking to a cheap implementation,” Hillebrand said on the phone from Bonn. “Most of the time, nothing happens on this control link. So, it was free capacity on the system.”
Initially, Hillebrand’s team could fit only 128 characters into that space, but that didn’t seem like nearly enough. With a little tweaking and a decision to cut down the set of possible letters, numbers and symbols that the system could represent, they squeezed out room for another 32 characters.
That sounds a lot like the first half of the story was mostly irrelevant and likely embellished.