Who Invented the Emoticon?

This is a guest post contributed by Nissi Unger

“Emoticons,” short for “emotive Icons,” (emotive meaning “appealing to or expression emotion” hence “icons that express emotions”) have been around in vertical form for some time. However, sideways emoticons seem to be a surprisingly recent invention, going back just about three decades.

“B4” the days of LOL and apps to aid parents in understanding their teenager’s “textspeak”, a man named Scott E. Fahlman wanted his colleagues and students to understand the difference between a sarcastic joke and a nasty barb when typed.

Fahlman was part of a group of scientists and students at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) who frequently communicated via an early online newsgroup to discuss a wide variety of topics. In these groups, if someone failed to understand that some sentiment was meant to be sarcastic or a joke, they would “post a lengthy diatribe in response,” explains Fahlman, “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.”

So Fahlman came up with a sideways smiley and posted it on the newsgroup in September of 1982. The following is a copy of the original post.

19-Sep-1982 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman
I propose 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


Fahlman thus became the first known person to use the :-) and :-( emoticons. (Although, many have since claimed that they used it before him, without having any documented evidence to support their claims.)  Of course, Fahlman himself thinks it highly probable that other people were using these particular notations before him, being a very simple idea.

Regardless if they did, it was Fahlman’s post that popularized and spurred on the creation of new emoticons.  The idea caught on quickly at CMU and it soon spread to dozens of other universities, research labs, and computer networks. Some people even made a hobby out of compiling all sorts of smileys expressing various sentiments.

Fahlman didn’t archived the original thread, since he had no way of knowing it would ever prove to be of interest to anybody, let alone help change the way people communicate digitally.

So how do we know about it today? In 2001, Mike Jones of Microsoft sponsored a serious dig into the thread archives stored on old backup tapes to see if someone could find the origin post by Fahlman.  Jeff Baird, Howard Wactlar, Bob Cosgrove, and David Livingston at CMU managed to not only find the tape backups, but also to find a machine capable of reading the old tapes and decoding the information on them.  The original thread was found on those tapes on September 10, 2002, just nine days before the 20th anniversary of the post.

How has all this affected Fahlman? Well, Fahlman never made a dime off of emoticons, and throughout the birth and growth of the emoticon, he has remained with CMU, primarily working in Artificial Intelligence. “I am trying to create something that will have a greater impact than that stupid thing,” Fahlman says. That’s a tall order. :-)

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Bonus Emoticon Facts:

  • In an 1881 edition of the publication “Puck”, they suggested the vertical emoticons seen on your right.
  • Another early instance of a vertical emoticon was suggested in 1912 by Ambrose Bierce: \__/!  This vertical emoticon was to indicate a smile with an exclamation point at the end to indicate it was an ironical smile, thus to be used as an alternate punctuation for sentences that were referring to things ironic in nature.  While this may seem not very self evident, Fahlman states that a CMU research group was using \_/ to indicate a smile around the time he suggested the sideways smiley, though he wasn’t aware of it when he made his suggestion and it isn’t clear whether that usage came before his.
  • Yet another earlier emoticon was suggested in the New York Times in 1969 when Vladimir Nabokov was asked “How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?”  He responded, “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.”
  • Abbreviations like “lol” and the like didn’t just come about because of the internet. According to the April, 1857 edition of The National Telegraphic Review Operators Guide, in Morse code, the number 73 was used to succinctly say “love and kisses”.  This was later changed to mean “best regards” and “love and kisses” got changed to the number 88.  There were numerous other shorthand codes used in Morse code “chatspeak”.
  • One of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches may have included an emoticon or it may have simply been a typo (read: it probably was a typo).  The transcript of the speech was printed in the August 7, 1862 edition of the Times, where it stated, there is this line “… but it is also true that there is no precedent for your being here yourselves, (applause and laughter ;) and I offer, in justification of myself and you, that I have found nothing in the Constitution against.”
  • After successfully trademarking the :-( in their logo, Despair, Inc., the instigators of the demotivator meme, jokingly stated that they were going to start suing anyone who used the frowny face emoticon.  People didn’t get that it was a joke (perhaps they should have used a ;-)) and the story made its rounds on a variety of news and social media sites, with people raging against Despair, Inc., which, of course, was probably what the company was hoping for.
  • Japanese emoticons are very different than American-style emoticons.  In these emoticons, rather than having sideways faces, the Japanese emoticons are normally oriented, like this: (*_*( or (-_-(.   One popular Japanese emoticon that has made its way somewhat into commonly used American emoticons is: o_O.
  • Harvey Ball got forty five dollars for designing the first yellow smiley face. Ironically, the smiley face was born in unhappy days at the State Mutual Life Assurance Company. The company had purchased the Ohio firm, Guarantee Mutual, and the takeover made working conditions in the company unfriendly and almost hostile. The State Mutual Vice President suggested a “friendship campaign” and hired Ball to design something that would boost morale at the company and asked him to design something “smile” oriented.  After Ball’s death in 2001, the LA Times wrote about his work. “Ball started sketching. Fearing that a grumpy employee would turn the smile upside down into a frown, he added the eyes. He settled on yellow for the background because it was a ‘sunshine’ color. The work took about 10 minutes.”  The company distributed 100 pieces of this smiley in 1964 and asked employees to smile while they answered phones and dealt with customers. Before long, the yellow smiles were so popular that the company kept on reordering them in batches of 10,000 to fill requests by companies and agents. Soon the yellow smiley face was a popular culture icon. The LA Times reports that “By 1971, more than 50 million smiley face buttons had been sold, and the image was popping up on coffee mugs, stickers, T-shirts and countless other items.” Ball never trademarked or copyrighted the design and made no money on it after the initial $45.  Others profited immensely from it, including some in other countries who did manage to acquire the rights to the yellow smiley and sue others who were using it without paying.
  • By 1993, David Sanderson (a.k.a “The Noah Webster of Smileys”) published a 93 page emoticon dictionary. Around the same time, a graduate astronomy student, James Marshall, began assembling an online emoticon dictionary called the Canonical Smiley List, which had about 2,231 entries by 2008 when he stopped adding entries.
  • While Fahlman never made a dime on the smiley, the BBC reported in December of 2008, that Oleg Teterin, a Russian businessman, the president of Superfone, claimed a trademark for ;-) emoticon and it was “granted to him by Russia’s federal patent agency.” Now before you emote over that, critics doubt that such a trademark can even be legal, in terms of holding up in court. The emoticon has been public domain for years. Despite this, Mr. Teterin said he would hunt down firms that use “his” symbol without permission. “Legal use will be possible after buying an annual license from us,” Teterin was quoted by the Kommersant paper. Luckily, you and I can still wink to each other through our screens because Teterin claimed he would not bother with individuals who used his wink. Teterin also claimed though that other symbols like :-) or ;) or :) could also fall under his ownership. Most think the announcement by Teterin was a gimmick just to drum up publicity.
  • While the Russians may dispute the real smiley trademark owner, it seems the courts of Finland have already come to their senses. A ruling, earlier this year in March of 2012 by the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) of Finland ruled that “A smiley :) registration as a trademark does not work in Finland…Smile emoticon :) imaging is so well known that it’s availability is limited. Smiling faces shall be freely accessible to everyone, including for commercial purposes.”
Nissi Unger has taught English for over a decade and also occasionally does freelance writing. You can see other articles from her in such places as Ami Magazine
Disclaimer: Guest Articles are written by various people and while I do my best to make sure they are factual, I do not guarantee that everything in them is going to be 100% accurate as I myself didn’t do the research for these articles and it’s possible their sources, even if they are reputable, are themselves inaccurate.
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