The Orbitel 901 (aka: TPU 901) is a hugely significant device in the history of GSM networks. Launched in May 1992, it was made by UK-based phone maker Orbitel which was based in Basingstoke, Hampshire (the company was later bought by Ericsson). In May 1992 it was the first phone approved for use on GSM networks.
The 901's biggest claim to fame is that it was the first phone in the world to receive an SMS (Short Message Service) text message. This took place on 3 December 1992, when Canadian test engineer Neil Papworth, who was working for Sema Group Telecoms in Reading, UK, sent a text message saying “Merry Christmas” to Richard Jarvis, the Engineering Director at Vodafone’s value-added services subsidiary Vodata in Newbury, UK. (Note: numerous engineering tests had been conducted prior to this sending text messages to the Orbitel 901, but this message is recorded as the first official text message).
The phone was also instrumental in much of the testing of early GSM networks. It had a powerful test interface that could be accessed by connecting the phone to a laptop. This provided extensive details on what was happening on the network making it indispensable to engineers deploying and testing GSM network technology.
One shortcoming of the device was the location of the full-size SIM card that slotted into handset close to where you would hold it. If knocked, this could cause the phone to accidentally disconnect from the network.
An Ericsson-branded variant of the 901 was also produced and was known as the Hotline GM 120. There was also a version for Germany’s D1 network known as the mobiltelefon model 334. The Orbitel 901 should not be confused with the Orbitel 900 (aka: TPU 900) which was a version that could be mounted in a vehicle.
Orbitel Mobile Communications was established in 1987 in Basingstoke, UK, as a joint venture between Plessey Corporation and Racal Telecommunications with each owning a 50% share however, Racal eventually bought out Plessey to fully own the company. Orbitel was setup to manufacture and supply analogue mobile phones to Vodafone (also owned by Racal). However, they became heavily involved in research and development of GSM in their own right leading to the launch of an independent range of GSM mobiles. In 1991 Racal Telecommunications announced that L M Ericsson was acquiring a 50% share in Orbitel for £45 million. Ericsson subsequently took over the entire company in 1996 resulting in Orbitel becoming Ericsson Mobile Platforms.
Some information courtesy of Nigel Linge & Andy Sutton, the authors of 30 Years of Mobile Phones in the UK (Paid Link)