(PITTSBURGH) -- On this day in 1982 Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, made a modest suggestion: If you’re on a computer bulletin board, and you write something you don’t want people to take seriously, he said, perhaps add a colon, a hyphen, and a closing parenthesis. When people read it sideways, he wrote, it would look like a smiley face.
Like this: : - )
With that suggestion, posted at 11:44 a.m. on Sept. 19, 1982, Fahlman became the father of the emoticon — the first of those quick little symbols people now use daily, by the millions, to let you know what they’re thinking.
Fahlman guesses that his casual invention spread because plain words — especially if they’re typed in a rush in an email, instant message or online comment — don’t always do their intended job. Sarcasm online almost never works.
Fahlman did not save his post; it was just part of an online thread following one person’s joke. Someone suggested an asterisk ( * ); someone else chimed in, “I believe that the joke character should be % rather than *.”
Pretty soon things got out of hand.
“No, no, no!” wrote a user. “Surely everyone will agree that “&” is the funniest character on the keyboard.”
This literally went on for days, until Fahlman wrote:
“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 rest is history. Several engineers had to pore through archival tapes 20 years later to find Fahlman’s original message.
Fahlman, still on the faculty at Carnegie Mellon, says he’s never made a dime off the emoticon, and is happy to answer questions about it on the anniversary.
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