Where did Emoticons come from?
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The history of Emoticons and Smileys

Over the last decade, Emoticons and Smileys have gained massive popularity all over the Internet. They're widely used in all areas of online communication: Forums, Emails, Instant Messaging and so on. Emoticons are literally everywhere, you just can't avoid them.

Here is a little history lesson on how Smileys and Emoticons were created.

The Emoticon

Since the dawn of communication between man there have been many symbols, codes and punctuation used to communicate emotions and feelings difficult to represent through text. Early examples can be seen in Morse code abbreviations from the 1850's and print publications in the early 1900's.

Emoticon Inventor, Scott Fahlman

There is no clear date as to when the first emoticon was used nor is it clear who really invented the first emoticon. It is however generally accepted that the common sideways smiley face in use today was invented by Scott Fahlman in 1982.

On the morning of September 19, 1982, the use of the first smiley face and frowning face emoticons was proposed by research professor Scott E. Fahlman, from the department of computer science at the Carnegie Mellon University in the USA. In 2002, this claim was verified after the original back-up tapes containing the postings were retrieved by Jeff Baird.

In his message, Professor Fahlman originally suggested the use of this emoticon :-) after funny and humorous posts on the message board and the use of this emoticon :-( for every thing else that was not meant to be funny and all serious remarks. The frowning face emoticons used today are meant as an indication of anger and sadness instead. Here is a copy of his original post:

<19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman             :)
From: Scott E Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>

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


Not long after, dozens of variations were being created and used on boards across the Internet. Nowadays, thousands of text and graphical emoticons are in use and everyday more are being created and circulated on the web worldwide. You can download a countless number of free emoticons from our website, just head over to the emoticons homepage and take your pick.

Others claims

It is said that in 1979, Kevin Mackenzie for the first time suggested the use of emoticons in the dry text. On an Internet bulletin board at MSGGROUP he wrote about using a hyphen and an inward bracket to picture a tongue-in-cheek like this -). Although his suggestion was not received well at the time, it later became popular and more widely used.

Designer of the Smileys, Harvey Ball


The very first yellow Smiley Face was created by Harvey Ball in 1963. He was hired by an insurance company to design a face to be used on buttons and cards in order to raise employee morale. It is noted that it took him 10 minutes to create the design, earning a $45 fee.

The Smiley gained huge popularity in the following years, becoming an international icon by the 1970's and securing a place in pop culture for the coming decades.

The growth of the Internet and the development of modern computer image formats allowed the Smiley to move online, cementing a place in Internet culture. Hundreds of thousands of graphical smileys have been created for Internet use, many of them animated. While the original smiley was all about happiness and creating a smile, all sorts of smileys are in use today. Even though the Smiley came to life some two decades before the Emoticon, there is no evidence that the creation of the first text emoticons were influenced by the Smiley.

While there have been some legal issues surrounding the Smiley, it's worth noting that other than his $45 fee, Harvey did not make a direct profit from his creation. Harvey also spent more than 20 years in the National Guard and Army reserves, serving in WWII. In 1999, Harvey setup The World Smile Corporation in order to organize World Smile Day and promote smiley related products and licensing. To find more information about Smileys or Harvey, see this Wikipedia entry.

Unfortunately, Harvey passed away on April 12, 2001 at the age of 79.

Current Usage

Emoticons are very useful for setting the tone of your messages, it can often be hard to get your message across in online communications (particularly in more informal conversations). We can see that the need to be able to distinguish between jokes and serious matters was the driving factor in the creation of the emoticon.

With the introduction of richer media in online communication, graphical emoticons became very popular. As animation formats became more widely supported, countless animated emoticons and smileys were created and continue to be created today.

Smileys and Emoticons are very frequently used in IM conversations, and most clients support them:

  • MSN Messenger
  • Windows Live Messenger
  • Yahoo Messenger
  • AOL Instant Messenger (AIM)
  • Google Talk
  • Skype

These chat clients provide users with a large set of smileys to use in chats. As of right now, MSN/WLM and MySpace IM are the only clients that support "custom" emoticons to be added by users. Most of these clients feature some emoticons that have been hidden using secret codes and shortcuts.

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