What Is a Pager?

Velina Nenova
Velina Nenova

Updated · Aug 05, 2022

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Pagers are small, portable devices that receive and display numeric or alphanumeric messages. 

They were once a vital form of communication, but now, mobile phones have largely replaced them.

Nevertheless, pagers still have their uses and can be a handy way to stay connected in certain situations.

Here’s a quick rundown of everything you need to know about them.

What Is a Pager?

Pagers are one of the oldest forms of wireless mobile communication, allowing the exchange of short messages and alerts.

When the pager receives a signal, it notifies the user with a beep or vibration, thus its other popular name — beeper.

Although they’re no longer as popular as they once were, these devices continue to play an important role in various industries.

Businesses often utilize them to ease the communication of employees who can’t receive cell phone signals. That’s valuable in places where cellular networks don’t provide enough coverage or buildings that restrict it.

Beepers work with FM radio signals, using a much simpler technology that isn’t easily obstructed but has a smaller range than cell towers.

That’s why construction workers and hospital staff who need a reliable connection at all times use pagers to stay in touch.

In addition, sometimes emergency services use them to dispatch personnel to the scene of an incident.

How Does a Pager Work?

All pagers work the same way — by receiving radio signals. In order to get messages, you need to have a personal code number (similar to a phone number).

The person who wants to contact you has to input this number together with their message.

Then, a machine (used to be done by a person) at the central message broadcasting office sends it via a system of antennas out to your device.

The process is very similar to a radio broadcast. Therefore, all pagers around you will receive the message, but only yours will decode and display it.

Pagers nowadays can also receive messages from email and other sources.

However, radio pagers only work within a certain transmitter range — a limited or wide area.

Limited-range paging covers a relatively small space, but it’s suitable for emergency messages, such as to all the doctors in a hospital.

Wide-area paging, on the other hand, uses a network of radio transmitters to send pages across a whole country.

Additionally, pagers can work manually or automatically. The former requires you to personally send each page, while the latter instantly sends a response. Automatic systems usually have a manual function as well.

What Types of Pagers Are There?

The first plain beepers used a simple two-tone system. Namely, if someone were trying to contact you, you would receive two rapid beeps, and that’s it. You wouldn’t know who or why was paging you, only that they were.

Later on, developments in technology allowed for more advanced models:

  • Alert-only pagers are similar to plain beepers as they can only receive but not reply to messages. However, these devices have additional features like vibration or light alerts.

That’s useful for people who need to be notified of an incoming message but can’t hear a beep (e.g., if they’re in a noisy environment).

  • Numeric is an affordable and easy-to-use pager device. It can only receive and display numbers or pager codes matching pre-defined messages.

These beepers were especially popular with healthcare workers due to the quick and easy communication in emergencies.

  • Alphanumeric pagers are more costly but offer a lot more flexibility. With them, you can receive messages containing short text.

Many of the abbreviations in contemporary slang, such as “ROFL” or “ILY,” originated from the character limit of beepers. Those who know what a pager is probably remember that.

  • Two-way alphanumeric is the most expensive and feature-packed type of pager. It offers two-way communication, meaning you can both receive and reply to messages.

This development made pagers much more versatile.

  • Voice beepers can play recorded voice messages. Compared to the rest of the pagers in the 90s, it was quite a costly alternative. Additionally, with the wide popularity of cell phones nowadays, these systems are rarely used.

Pagers vs Cell Phones

Pagers and cell phones are both forms of wireless communication, but they differ in several important ways:

  • Pagers are primarily for exchanging messages, not making and receiving phone calls.
  • A beeper has a simple display that shows the sender’s phone number or a short message, while phones have color displays and support more complex applications.
  • Pagers are usually smaller and lighter than cell phones.
  • Beepers use a system of radio transmitting antennas to relay messages, while phones rely on a network of base stations that connect to the public telephone network.

As a result, pagers are more reliable in areas with limited infrastructure, but cell phones offer more features and flexibility.

When Did Pagers Come Out?

Pagers have been around since 1921, but in the beginning, only police officers used them.

In 1959, Motorola popularized beepers all over the US. That allowed people of all occupations to receive numerical messages sent over radio waves.

These simple devices were quickly deemed invaluable in emergency services, hospitals, construction sites, etc.

By the 1990s, beepers were capable of receiving text and voice messages. 

Pagers were especially treasured among teenagers in the 1980s as they allowed friends to communicate without having to use a landline.

Furthermore, 3.2 million people worldwide had a pager at the time. The trend continued for almost another decade but declined significantly after the 1990s.

The reason for that was the advent of cell phones and other mobile devices. 

Pagers lost their commercial application, but devoted users still prefer this technology to more modern options.

Wrap Up

A beeper or pager is a wireless communication device that receives and displays messages. The technology provided an effective means of reaching people in the pre-mobile phone era.

There are many different models, from simple numeric ones to more sophisticated voice pagers.

In any case, after its boom in popularity in the 80s and 90s, the technology lost its mainstream appeal.

Nowadays, pagers are still used in different industries where people can’t rely on cell phone signals.

FAQ.


What does a pager look like?

A pager is a small, handheld device that can receive and send messages. 

They typically have a small screen that displays messages and a keypad that can be used to enter text or numerical responses.

Pagers vary in size and shape, but most are small enough to fit comfortably in a pocket or purse.

What is a pager phone?

There’s no such thing as a pager phone. Pagers and phones use different technology to allow communication.

A pager is a device that can receive short messages, usually just a few words or numbers long, using radio transmissions.

There are several beeper types — plain, numeric, alphanumeric, voice, and two-way — each allowing for a different way of communication.

What are beepers?

Beepers are small, portable, radio-like devices that receive signals and then emit an audible tone or vibration to alert the user. The term “beeper” comes from the sound made by the early models of pagers.

They were initially developed in the 1920s for the police but quickly became popular with a broader range of professionals, including medical practitioners, journalists, and government officials.

Although pagers have been largely replaced by cell phones and other mobile devices, they continue to be preferred by some people due to their simplicity and ease of use.

When did pagers go out of style?

Pagers were once a common sight, particularly in hospitals and other workplaces where timely communication is essential. 

However, they have largely fallen out of use in recent years, replaced by more modern technologies, such as smartphones. 

The shift away from pagers began in the late 1990s, as mobile phones became more widespread. Pagers continued to lose ground in the 2000s as smartphones became more affordable and feature-rich.

By 2010, pagers were no longer common in the workplace, and their popularity kept declining in the following years. So much that today many young people have no idea what a pager is.

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Velina Nenova

Velina Nenova

Velina describes herself as passionate media savvy and a versatile individual with numerous different interests, most a result of her Media & Communications BA. She has also developed a keen interest in Digital Marketing and Advertising. Her never-ending desire to constantly learn new things and enrich herself and her ultimate dream to go around the globe before 45 are her driving forces.

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