1982: At precisely 11:44 a.m., Scott Fahlman posts the following electronic message to a computer-science department bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon University:
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:
With that post, Fahlman became the acknowledged originator of the ASCII-based emoticon. From those two simple emoticons (a portmanteau combining the words emotion and icon) have sprung dozens of others that are the joy, or bane, of e-mail, text-message and instant-message correspondence the world over.
Fahlman was not, however, the first person to use typographical symbols to convey emotions. The practice goes back at least to the mid-19th century, when Morse code symbols were occasionally used for the same purpose. Other examples exist as well.
In 1881, the American satirical magazine Puck published what we would now call emoticons, using hand-set type. No less a wordsmith than Ambrose Bierce suggested using what he called a “snigger point” — \__/ — to convey jocularity or irony. Baltimore’s Sunday Sun suggested a tongue-in-cheek sideways character in 1967.
But none of those caught on. The internet emoticon truly traces its lineage directly to Fahlman, who says he came up with the idea after reading “lengthy diatribes” from people on the message board who failed to get the joke or the sarcasm in a particular post — which is probably what “given current trends” refers to in his own, now-famous missive.
To remedy this, Fahlman suggested using :-) and :-( to distinguish between posts that should be taken humorously and those of a more serious nature.
Fahlman’s original post was lost for a couple of decades and believed gone for good, until it was retrieved from an old backup tape, thus cementing his claim of priority.
Photo: Carnegie Mellon professor Scott E. Fahlman smiles away in his home office. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
This article first appeared on Wired.com Sept. 19, 2008.