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Microsoft Unearths The First Smiley

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Love them or hate them, emoticons have been in use for a long time online; younger users may be surprised to find out just how long that’s been. Answers.com tells us in 1982, compact disc players were introduced for the first time. Billy Joel’s ’52nd Street’ was the first commercially released CD. And, explorers ventured to Antarctica to retrieve a meteorite that at the time was the first recognized to be from the moon.

Wouldn’t it have been funny if the explorers found that the meteorite had landed on a copy of ’52nd Street’? If it did, someone could have posted the story on a BBS, and if they’d seen this post, the user may have been inspired to add a :-) to the story.

Back in the dark ages of the 1980s, serious people used serious computer systems to perform research and to communicate, after a fashion. Being serious types, the introduction of humor into a discussion merited, well, further discussion.

It all started when people at Carnegie Mellon University experienced confusion when posts about mercury in an elevator didn’t clearly note the post was a joke. One person, Neil Swartz, suggested marking jokes with a (*) in the subject line. Scott Fahlman, who very evidently possessed a sense of humor, responded:

17-Sep-82 13:04 Scott Fahlman at CMU-10A Elevators (*) Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the elevator…

Unfortunately, the center elevator now contains what seems to be the remains of 40,000 two-pound pigeons in an advanced state of decomposition and the right elevator contains a bear of indeterminate color. The left elevator appears to be safe, but when you stand in it for too long, your voice gets squeaky and you start running into the walls, causing the elevator to rise. Despite the * in the header of this message, this is not a joke and should be taken quite literally. Do not panic — taking the stairs is good for you.

Other suggestions were made by the learned contributors from CMU: *%, &, # (with a lengthy justification for it). And then Fahlman invented the smiley:

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 frowning smiley would have been appropriate for some other computer related research performed in 1982. At Xerox’s legendary Palo Alto Research Center (which invented the GUI, not Apple, by the way), two researchers developed the first computer worm; it was an experiment in parallel processing, not the malicious threats we know 23 years later.

Microsoft Unearths The First Smiley
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