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A quick look back at the first emoticons that were created 41 years ago today


It's one of the most common things people use to communicate with each other in emails, text messages, forums, and other online groups. It's the emoticon. Long before emojis, the emoticon was used to express emotions with a simple grouping of text characters.

Today happens to be the 41st anniversary of the first documented use of an emoticon. It happened on September 19, 1982. We can all thank Scott E. Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, for the first emoticons.

As he posts on his own website, in the early 1980s, the computer science students and teachers at Carnegie Mellon used computer bulletin boards to send messages to each other. However, Fahlman noted that sometimes, if someone tried to write something that was humorous on these boards, some people would fail to get the joke.

So some people in that community decided to see if they could come up with a way to show that a message was not supposed to be taken seriously. As Fahlman himself wrote on his site:

Various “joke markers” were suggested, and in the midst of that discussion it occurred to me that the character sequence :-) would be an elegant solution – one that could be handled by the ASCII-based computer terminals of the day. So I suggested that. In the same post, I also suggested the use of :-( to indicate that a message was meant to be taken seriously, though that symbol quickly evolved into a marker for displeasure, frustration, or anger.

His message was posted on the Carnegie Mellon computer bulletin board on the previously mentioned date. Fahlman stated that his character sequences "caught on quickly" in that community, and soon spread to other college computer communities as well.

However, for a while, it looked like Fahlman's original post that showed his idea for "joke markers" was lost as he didn't think about saving it. It looked for a while like the proof that he had started an internet messaging phenomenon would never be found.

However, in 2002, a former Carnegie Mellon computer researcher named Mike Jones, who was then working at Microsoft, decided to start an effort to find the original post from Fahlman. As Fahlman notes, other CMU staff members joined in the search.

Jeff Baird and the CMU CS facilities staff put in a heroic effort with the support and encouragement of Howard Wactlar, Bob Cosgrove, and David Livingston. They found the proper tapes, located a working tape drive that could read the ancient media, decoded the old formats, and did a lot of searching to find the actual posts. I am most grateful to all who participated in this successful quest, which I call the “Digital Coelacanth Project.”

emoticon post

As he indicated, the search for the post was indeed successful, and you can find a copy of his post, along with the bulletin board thread of the initial idea and the responses to Fahlman's message, at this site. As Jones notes on that same page, "Jeff Baird should get most of the credit for doing the hard work of locating and retrieving the data."

There's a lot more info from Fahlman about his creation on his site. He also makes some comments about claims that someone else made the first emoticons. However, there's no documented evidence of these claims. Fahlman writes:

I probably was not the first person ever to type these three letters in sequence, perhaps even with the meaning of “I’m just kidding” and perhaps even online. But I do believe that my 1982 suggestion was the one that finally took hold, spread around the world, and spawned thousands of variations. My colleagues and I have been able to watch the idea spread out through the world’s computer networks from that original post.

So there you have it. If you ever have typed in :-) to express joy or laughter, or :-( to show sadness in a message, it's Fahlman you have to thank.

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