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On this day in history: The "whimsical" emoticon is born

Posted at 12:27 PM, Sep 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-19 14:27:35-04

On Sept. 19, 1982, three keyboard characters changed the way we communicate: Colon, dash, the right half of a parentheses.

Viewed from left to right, the combination might have looked like a typo. Tilt your head to the left, and you'll see it.


The emoticon was born in a chatroom – then known as a "bboard," or an online bulletin board – at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, according to emoticon creator Scott E. Fahlman, a professor in the school's computer science department.

The "bboards" were used for campus announcements and updates. The problem, Fahlman explained, was that sarcasm humor wouldn't always translate online.

"In at least one case, a humorous remark was interpreted by someone as a serious safety warning," Fahlman wrote in the early 2000s .

Fahlman devised a solution: If a bboard comment was made in jest, he suggested a "joke marker" – the :-) that eventually became the first widely used emoticon. If the comment wasn't a joke, it could be marked with a :-(.

Here was Fahlman's initial pitch to the bboard:

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 :-(

The markers caught on, spreading from one university to the next and eventually into internet lore. Just know this: Fahlman wasn't a fan of the emoticon's cartoon-like evolution, the emoji.

"It’s interesting to note that Microsoft and AOL now intercept these character strings and turn them into little pictures," Fahlman wrote. "Personally, I think this destroys the whimsical element of the original."