Emoticons … a history

To some, an email isn’t complete without the inclusion of :-) or :-(. To others, the very idea of using “emoticons” – communicative graphics – makes the blood boil and represents all that has gone wrong with the English language.

Regardless of your view, it may surprise you to know that they’re over 30 years old. One thing is for sure though is that they are here to stay. Their birth can be traced to the precise minute: 11:44am on 19 September 1982. At that moment, Professor Scott Fahlman, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, sent an email on an online electronic bulletin board that included the first use of the sideways smiley face:

“I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-) Read it sideways,”

More than anyone, he must take the credit – or the blame. The aim was simple: to allow those who posted on the university’s bulletin board to distinguish between those attempting to write humorous emails and those who weren’t. Professor Fahlman had seen how simple jokes were often misunderstood and attempted to find a way around the problem.

Professor Fahlman, a computer science researcher was amazed his smiley face took off. “This was a little bit of silliness that I tossed into a discussion about physics,” he said. “It was ten minutes of my life. I expected my note might amuse a few of my friends, and that would be the end of it.”

But once his initial email had been sent, it wasn’t long before it spread to other universities and research labs via the primitive computer networks of the day. Within months, it had gone global.

Today there are dozens of of ingenious variations available, mainly as little yellow, computer graphics. There are emoticons that wear sunglasses; some cry, while others don Santa hats.

Professor Fahlman didn’t keep a copy of his original email and attempts to retrieve it from the university IT system proved unsuccessful. Then, as the use of emoticons grew, more attempts were made. In 2002, in what the professor described as a piece of “computer-archaeology”, an engineer from Microsoft went through the back-up tapes and, 20 years after it was first sent, the email was retrieved.

A mistake or the 1st emoticon ?

A mistake or the 1st emoticon ?

However, 1982 may not be the earliest recorded “sighting” of an emoticon. It has been noted that in an 1862 edition of The New York Times the following 2 little characters ;) appear in a transcript of a speech by Abraham Lincoln. Nerds and conspiracy theorists are still debating whether or not it was a typo !

Author: Robert

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