An E-Waste Retrospective: Episode 5
“Beep me 9-1-1” - Missy Elliot
If you were alive in the late 80s/90s and listened to hip-hop, you had (or at least wanted) a pager. From Biggie asking who the f*** was paging him at 5:46 in the mornin’ to Tribe Called Quest rapping about the importance of “skypager,” the device was in heavy pop culture rotation.
The earliest form of a "pager" was first used in the 1950s by NYC doctors. Come the 1980s, users of the modern day pager reached 3.2 million worldwide. The most common version at the time was the numeric “one-way” pager (or “beeper”). It included an LCD screen capable of displaying the calling phone number or other numeric information generally up to 10 digits.
But in 1986, Motorola released the Bravo Pager. The pager that started it all.
Gone were the days where pagers were only communication tools of alleged drug dealers, doctors and high-powered CEOs. The Motorola Bravo quickly became the world’s best selling pager, and ultimately an icon of personal comm devices in the pre-cellphone era. Interestingly, Motorola was the sole manufacturer of pagers in America at the time.
The Bravo pager was not only simple, but incredibly reliable and secure. A one-way pager is a passive receiver only, so its location can’t be tracked. Also, because of its simulcast design approach, a pager can use the strongest signal available from multiple transmitters via satellite. Essentially, you never missed a page.
How did it work?
Person One sends a numeric message using a phone. The message is sent to the pager of Person Two. Person Two is notified of the incoming message by a beep or a buzzing vibration. The incoming message appears on the pager’s screen display. Typically, it’s a number to call Person One back at, or a distinct message Person Two is capable of understanding.
This is where it gets fun. Some of the more common examples of these messages included;
143 = “I love you”
911 = “Emergency”
411 = “Information”
Cleverly enough, pager users also used a combination of numbers to type out actual words, if read upside down. Some shining examples included:
07734 = “Hello”
1134 2 09 = “Go to Hell”
14 = “Hi”
58008 - “Boobs”
“Motorola two-way page me.” - Jay-Z in ‘I Just Wanna Love You (Give it 2 Me)’
It wasn’t until 1995 that the world was introduced to the first two-way pager, also released by Motorola. These allowed users to receive and send messages.
In 1999, over 100 million pagers were in use. But by 2000, cellphones had begun their inevitable takeover and Motorola discontinued its pager line in 2001. Nevertheless, many pagers are still used today by emergency personnel for its reliability over modern cellular networks.