Answer Man

Answer Man: How did Twitter come up with a limit of 140 characters for tweets?

Q. How did Twitter ever come to set a limit of 140 characters for tweets? It seems a strange number.

A. For Friedhelm Hillebrand, it would be a perfectly logical choice.

Back in 1985, he was sitting at his typewriter in his Bonn, Germany, home, tapping out random sentences. As he continued his little exercise, he started counting the number of letters, numbers, spaces and other characters in each sentence. Almost all came in at less than 160.

“This is perfectly sufficient,” he remembered thinking at the time, according to a 2009 Los Angeles Times article. “Perfectly sufficient.”

He wasn’t practicing his writing skills or estimating his typing speed. Hillebrand, then 45, was chairman of the nonvoice services committee within the Global System for Mobile Communications. It’s the group that sets standards for most of the world’s mobile market. Within months, Hillebrand began pushing what eventually created a communications revolution: The GSM ruled that all cellular carriers and mobile phones had to handle what it called the short messaging service.

It added a huge new wrinkle to what mobile phones were able to do. While voice communication was sent by one signal, Hillebrand had the brilliant idea to harness a secondary radio channel to transmit short text messages. Until then, this channel was used only to tell a cellphone about reception strength and other brief information about incoming calls.

“Most of the time, nothing happens on this control link,” he told the Times. “So, it was free capacity on the system.”

At first, Hillebrand’s team managed to cram only 128 characters into a text burst, but by eliminating the use of some letters and symbols and making a few other changes, they added another 32 to reach Hillebrand’s magic number of 160.

But had Hillebrand calculated correctly? Would 160 characters be sufficient to provide consistently useful communication or would it sink as quickly as a Pet Rock?

“(A) friend said this was impossible for the mass market,” Hillebrand said he was once told before making his typewriter experiment. “I was more optimistic.”

Hillebrand’s group decided it had two facts on its side. For starters, they found most people who write postcards limit their messages to 150 characters max. Moreover, they found that business professionals who sent messages through the then-popular telegraphy network Telex also kept them within 150 characters or so, even though Telex put no limit on length.

Now we know the outcome, don’t we? In 2012, Twitter every day saw 100 million users post 340 million tweets, which are limited to 140 characters because the other 20 are reserved for the user’s unique address. Telecoms, of course, are raking in the dough because of it, but all Hillebrand receives is the satisfaction of seeing the idea he came up with alone in his room go global.

“Nobody had foreseen how fast and quickly the young people would use this,” said Hillebrand, who admits being fascinated by couples breaking up by text.

Q. Our Girl Scout troop is starting a community service project, for which we are collecting donations of baby-care items. Do you know of a nonprofit we can donate these to? On the Internet, I have found places in St. Louis and Granite City, but nothing closer to home.

— H.W., of Freeburg

A. How could I not know? I wrote the story that heralded the opening of the Pregnancy Care Center on March 8, 1983, at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville.

Although not officially sponsored by the hospital, it was provided a suite of offices so that it could offer free, confidential services to any pregnant girl or woman who felt she might be financially or emotionally unable to care for a child. Along with medical services and referrals, its mission included providing maternity clothes and infant needs, and it immediately began seeking donations of those items and money to help it provide an alternative to abortion.

So, naturally, it was the place I immediately thought of when I opened your email. Sure enough, 32 years later, the volunteers there are still hard at work and say they would be most grateful for your contributions. After all, the center can always use help so it can give away 50,000 diapers along with baby and child clothes, mattresses, cribs, layette items and more each year.

“Yes, we sure would,” Gloria Schwartz told me. “Everything here is donated. That’s how we help other people is by donations. We would appreciate it.”

You can find them at 301 W. Lincoln St., Building D, Suite 105. Or, for more information, call 233-2273. The director is Celeste Cocheba.

— Ben Schulte, of Fairview Heights

Today’s trivia

Name the Super Bowl coach who battled polio as a child — and went on to win a championship as a player in the National Basketball Association.

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: President Dwight Eisenhower reportedly was a light eater, but he enjoyed cooking. One of his specialties was his vegetable soup, which he recommended stewing the day before he served it. He even handed out copies of the recipe as a souvenir — and you can still find his own version at abcnews.go.com/GMA/recipe/dwight-eisenhowers-vegetable-soup-13828294 along with other recipes fit for a chief executive at www.eisenhower.archives.gov/all_about_ike/favorites.html. Eisenhower died March 28, 1969, and, per his request, was buried in an $80 government-issue casket that all Army soldiers were buried in. The only difference was an inner glass seal that cost an extra $115, according to the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kansas, where his body rests.

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