Monday, February 23, 2009

Prehistory of the Emoticon

By now you’ve probably heard the origin story of the emoticon. Yes, the tiny little smiley face formed from an assemblage of punctuation has become such the superhero of the interwebs it deserves the full fledged honor of having an “origin story”:

At 11:44AM, September 19, 1982 Scott Fahlman posted the following to a joke thread on the computer science general board of Carnegie Mellon University (from Wikipedia):

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark
things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use


That post, long thought lost, was freed from a backup tape of the Carnegie Mellon archives in 2002, in time for the 20th Anniversary.

And just like a good superhero, the emoticon has a mythical and controversial pre-history as well. Recently I saw this image on This Isn’t Happiness from 1972:

And even more surprisingly, there’s this controversial seeming use of an emoticon in from an 1862 New York Times transcript of a speech by Lincoln:

The image has been analyzed by a number of experts, but no clear opinion has emerged as to whether or not it’s intentional, a typo, or just punctuation inside the parenthesis.

Wikipedia has an even longer list of antecedents or pre-1982 uses. In any case, Fahlman’s post popularized the emoticon which soon spread across the Arpanet, the ancestor of the internet.

That is of course until Despair, Inc trademarked the frownie face emoticon. Now you have to buy them from them.

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