Pagers- What, Why and How

Pagers- What, Why and How

It’s probably hard for the younger readers of this blog to understand, but pagers were kind of the s**t back in the day. Before cell phones became able to send and receive text messages pagers were the best way to receive quick messages.
If you’re unfamiliar, a pager was pretty much a tomagachi that could receive -and in some cases send- text messages, using high frequency radio waves. Okay, not really a tomagatchi, think of a tiny walkie-talkie with a screen that you could read messages on.
Better yet- here’s a picture.

What exactly am I looking at here?

The picture above is a Pager aka a Beeper, and If you’re confused- it’s alright. The tech is practically obsolete at this point in time, minus a few unique situations in society that still make use of them. (We’ll cover those later in the blog.) 
Pagers were actually first invented in 1921 -blew my mind too, don’t worry- when the Detroit Police department produced its first radio-equipped car. Of course, the device this car was loaded up with, was a best-guess at what pagers would become, and of course- wasn’t called a pager. 

28 years later, however, the very first telephone pager would be patented by Al Gross in 1949. Within a year of being patented, it was being put to use in New York City’s Jewish Hospital. The pager would go on to see significant success in critical information niches like nursing homes and hospitals, but it would stop there.

At first, the pager wasn’t available to the public, and the entire system operated off of a single tower that covered about 50km. Doctors would pay $12 USD per month to receive communications that would give them basic instructions. Proceed immediately to ER or proceed to the nearest telephone and dial the operator to receive more detailed instructions. 

Gross, is considered by many to be one of the fathers of radio technology, having invented the walkie-talkie as a 19-year-old, no, that’s not a typo- he was 19. The walkie-talkie was quickly scooped up by the military as a secure, but portable ground to are communication device. 

(Also- it still wasn’t called a “Pager” or “Beeper” yet.)

By 1959, Motorola had finally coined the term pager. Having just become Motorola’s Chief Engineer in 1960, John Francis Mitchell led the charge for creating Motorola’s first transistorized pager. Which is a fancy way of saying he created a smaller, more portable device. 

By 1964, Motorola was just about starting its 40-year run as the dominant force in pagers on the globe. They debuted the Pageboy 1, a tone-only pager, that pretty much told members of the public to proceed to the nearest payphone and dial a number to receive their message.

Not incredibly convenient, but certainly better than hearing about news the next day… or week. 

The 80’s Boom

In the early 70s pagers would finally become able to transmit audio messages. For health professionals this meant a great deal because instead of having to sprint to the nearest phone, they could instead sprint directly to the “code blue” they just received on their pagers.

Lives were saved- arguably thousands or more.

By the time the ’80s rolled around, there were over 3.2 million pagers in public circulation. They quickly became something of a status symbol. This makes some sense given that at the time, pagers were still limited to personnel who required critical information: doctors, nurses, firemen, policemen, etc. Most usage was confined to a limited range, usually within the vicinity of a fire station, police station, or hospital. 

It was around this time that screens were built into pagers. Presumably, this was an attempt to help keep hospitals quiet so that patients could maximize recovery and health professionals could minimize stress. At first, numeric codes were the only messages sent this way, with predetermined actions being represented by unique codes. By the mid ’80s, detailed messages were being sent on pagers and you could send messages via telephone. 

By the time 1994 arrived, pagers would feature two-way communication, qwerty alphanumeric keyboards, and more than 61 million of them were in use in the United States alone. Yes- your parents or grandparents were sending “I love you” as text messages long before cell phones became heavily popular.

In fact, the birth of cheap mobile phones pretty much sealed the deal for pagers- but that’s another article. 

Modern Pager Use

In 2001, Motorola and most other pager giants would stop producing pagers as cell phones became the dominant force in the market. Given that tech had begun witnessing the rapid death of floppy disks- the leap is understandable.

To this day, however, certain companies like Spok would continue to provide paging services in a limited capacity. Mostly for hospital environments where cell signals and Wifi can’t penetrate effectively through thick concrete walls.

Pagers are also currently used as a form of emergency communication in case a calamity strikes. Who has these emergency pagers? Not me. However, the technology is arguably still more secure and convenient than most cellular tech. 

I’ll give you a quick breakdown. 

Paging Networks. They’re Still a thing. Even Today

And yes, by today, I mean in 2022, there are still active paging networks.

Paging networks are a lot like some cell networks, in that they rely on towers relaying signals over certain areas. Local networks, like the ones used in hospitals, or at restaurants to let you know your table is ready, operate using a low-power transmitter that covers the local area. National networks, like the ones operated by Spok, use much higher power transmitters. 

National networks use higher frequencies than most cell phones and have towers that are significantly higher off the ground. This means that pager signals can actually be transmitted much further, with fewer transmitters than a comparable cellular network. 

Pager networks also simultaneously broadcast messages from multiple towers at once, so that there’s practically zero chance of missing a message sent to you. Every pager also has its own unique identity, so there are rarely if ever missing messages, unless a human operator makes a mistake. 

The Why of It

Remember the 19-year-old genius I mentioned briefly earlier in the article? Al Gross? 

Unfortunate name- brilliant mind.

Al was inspired to begin tinkering with radios at the age of 9 when his parents took him on a steamboat trip across Lake Erie in 1928. Steamboats were commonly equipped with Ham radios at that point in time and the operators invited Al into the control room. The rest was history. 

3 years later at the age of 12, Al had already constructed his first ham radio. By 16, he had earned an amateur operator’s license but was frustrated by his inability to be mobile while communicating with other radios. So, he did what any other 16-year-old would do….

And invented the walkie-talkie…

(Actually- he had only just gotten started then, but there’s way less dramatic effect in that.)

The story starts to write itself from this point on.

Within a year of completing his walkie-talkie, he actually caught the attention of some military higher-ups in Washington and was called to give a demonstration to William J. Donovan, who was the head of the Office of Strategic Services- which would go on to become the CIA. 

Al was pretty much instantly made an army captain and set to work on a project named Joan-Eleanor. While working on that project, he created a device that allowed American spies to securely communicate information to reconnaissance pilots. According to the joint chiefs of staff, it was one of the “most successful wireless intelligence-gathering operations, saving millions of lives by shortening the war.”

My boy Grossie won the war.

He would leave the military, seeing massive business success after presenting his devices to the Federal Communications Commission, which would see it adapted for civilian use. 

In 1949, he would invent his first pager with the specific intention of it being used by health care professionals. At first, doctors laughed at his device, joking that it would interrupt the peace of their golf outings, but they would quickly adopt the technology given how useful it was. 

And it’s still in use today. So in the end, Gross had the last laugh and the gratitude of millions.

Wrapping up

Pagers emerged from the mind of one very unfortunately named genius and came to prominence in a way that empowered critical response personnel the world over. They also let your mom and dad sext back in the day- but don’t think about that part too hard. 

Despite falling out of popular use, they still serve to this day to let doctors know which patients need urgent care and restaurant-goers know when their table is ready. Plus- if s**t ever really hits the fan, you might want to have a pager on hand- they’ll be running when everything else is down.

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