Today in History – September 19, 1982 – Invention of the Smiley Face emoticon by Scott E. Fahlman. A lot of people have asked me about this, so I put together this account, which I am reprinting for the Engineering Pathway educational digital library.
Yes, I am the inventor of the sideways “smiley face” (sometimes called an “emoticon”) that is commonly used in E-mail, chat, and newsgroup posts. Or at least I’m one of the inventors.
By the early 1980’s, the Computer Science community at Carnegie Mellon was making heavy use of online bulletin boards or “bboards”. These were a precursor of today’s newsgroups, and they were an important social mechanism in the department – a place where faculty, staff, and students could discuss the weighty matters of the day on an equal footing. Many of the posts were serious: talk announcements, requests for information, and things like “I’ve just found a ring in the fifth-floor men’s room. Who does it belong to?” Other posts discussed topics of general interest, ranging from politics to abortion to campus parking to keyboard layout (in increasing order of passion). Even in those days, extended “flame wars” were common.
Given the nature of the community, a good many of the posts were humorous (or attempted humor). The problem was that if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke, and each of them would post a lengthy diatribe in response. That would stir up more people with more responses, and soon the original thread of the discussion was buried. In at least one case, a humorous remark was interpreted by someone as a serious safety warning.
This problem caused some of us to suggest (only half seriously) that maybe it would be a good idea to explicitly mark posts that were not to be taken seriously. After all, when using text-based online communication, we lack the body language or tone-of-voice cues that convey this information when we talk in person or on the phone. 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.
This convention caught on quickly around Carnegie Mellon, and soon spread to other universities and research labs via the primitive computer networks of the day. (Some CMU alumni who had moved on to other places continued to read our bboards as a way of keeping in touch with their old community.)
Within a few months, we started seeing the lists with dozens of “smilies”: open-mouthed surprise, person wearing glasses, Abraham Lincoln, Santa Claus, the pope, and so on. Producing such clever compilations has become a serious hobby for some people. But only my two original smilies, plus the “winky” ;-) and the “noseless” variants seem to be in common use for actual communication. It’s interesting to note that Microsoft and AOL now intercept these character strings and turn them into little pictures. Personally, I think this destroys the whimsical element of the original.
Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a copy of my original post. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. By the time I realized that this smiley-face phenomenon was going to be long-lasting and that it would spread around the world as the Internet grew, it was too late to easily retrieve the post, and the original message was lost for many years.
Several attempts to find the post on old backup tapes were unsuccessful. But recently Mike Jones of Microsoft sponsored a more serious “archeological dig” through our ancient backup tapes. 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.”
So the message itself, and the thread that gave rise to it, are here. The exact date of the smiley’s birth can now be determined: 19 September, 1982. It’s great to have this message back just in time for the 20th anniversary of the original post.
As you can see, the note in which I suggested this thing was quite short and casual – just part of an ongoing discussion that involved many people. I apparently didn’t even read it over before posting, since a word or two were dropped in editing. I do remember writing a longer message in which I explained the need for a humor-marker in more detail, and suggested the :-) symbol, along with :-( to indicate anger or real unhappiness. But this longer message must have come later – perhaps a later bboard post or an E-mail message that I sent to someone. In any case, that more detailed post did not turn up in our search.
Many people have denounced the very idea of the smiley face, pointing out that good writers should have no need to explicitly label their humorous comments. Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain got along just fine without this. And by labeling the remarks that are not meant to be taken seriously, we spoil the joke. In satirical writing, half the fun is in never being quite sure whether the author is serious or not.
To a large degree, I agree with these critics. Perhaps the E-mail smiley face has done more to degrade our written communication than to improve it. But in defense of the idea, let me say two things:
First, not all people who post on boards have the literary skill of Shakespeare or Twain, and even those luminaries had bad days. If Shakespeare were tossing off a quick note complaining about the lack of employee parking spaces near the Globe Theater, he might have produced the same kind of sloppy prose that the rest of us do. Besides, Shakespeare’s work is full of clichés and his spelling was atrocious. :-)
Second, and more important, these authors were publishing their words in a different medium, with different properties. If 100,000 copies of a novel or an essay were distributed in printed form, and if 1% of the readers didn’t get the joke and were outraged at what they had read, there was nothing these clueless readers could do to spoil the enjoyment of the other 99%. But if it were possible for each of the 1000 clueless readers to write a lengthy counter-argument and to flood these into the same distribution channels as the original work, and if others could then jump into the fray in similar fashion, you can see the problems that this would cause. If the judicious use of a few smilies can reduce the frequency of such firestorms, then maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all. Again, we’re talking here about casual writing on the Internet, not great works printed in one-way media that relatively inaccessible to the general public.
One final point: I’ve seen various claims that the sideways smiley face was invented by someone else. I believe that I invented this particular glyph and the “turn your head to one side” principle independently. I don’t recall seeing anything like this before my post, though a few messages in the thread we just located come close. Leonard Hamey’s post suggesting (#) for humor might be taken as an example of “turn your head to one side” – it’s not really clear if that was his intent – and apparently \__/ was used by one of our research groups to indicate a smile. I’ve never seen any hard evidence that the :-) sequence was in use before my original post, and I’ve never run into anyone who actually claims to have invented it before I did. But it’s always possible that someone else had the same idea – it’s a simple and obvious idea, after all.
Some people have told me that the :-) or :) convention was used by teletype operators in the old days. Maybe so. I haven’t seen any examples of this, but it’s plausible, given the limitations of the character set in that medium.
So, the smiley idea may have appeared and disappeared a few times before my 1982 post, but it is pretty clear from the timing that my suggestion was the one that finally took hold, spread around the world, and spawned thousands of variations.
Let me close with a quote from an interview with Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita and other modern classics (thanks to Eli Brandt for calling this to my attention):
Q: How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?
Nabokov: I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile – some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.
For more information, see the Engineering Pathway’s resources on emoticons, history of computing and personal computers and computation. For curricular resources, visit the Computer Science Education, Computer Engineering Education, or Information Technology Education community sites.
Five years after the above account was written, we had a big celebration of the smiley’s 25th anniversary in September 2007. In the three days surrounding the anniversary, I must have given 50 short phone interviews for radio stations around the world — three in one day from Australia alone. An associated press story on the smiley appeared in newspapers and on web sites around the world. A friend showed me the story, with my picture, on the web site of an Iranian news agency, next to an article in which the Iranian government was threatening to destroy Israel if Israel tried to bomb their nuclear reactors — if ever a story needed a smiley face, it was that one.
The interest of the worldwide press in this thing always amazes me, but I guess it’s understandable: there are never enough “feel good” stories. I get tired of telling the same story, but I’ve decided that it’s worthwhile to participate in all the hoopla. It’s good publicity for Carnegie Mellon, and (more important), perhaps it shows in some small way that computer scientists are not the humorless grinds that many people think we are. Quite the opposite — it’s really fun to be part of this high-powered and extremely creative culture. If we can give the general public, and kids choosing a career, some glimpse of that reality, it will be time well spent.