PITTSBURGH (WHTM) — In 1982, the internet was in its toddler stage. The World Wide Web (www) wouldn’t be released to the public until 1993. (Yes, “internet” and “www” are two different things.) Email existed, but was somewhat limited.

In scientific and engineering departments — especially computer science and engineering — the online bulletin board became the preferred method of communicating and exchanging ideas. The topics included pretty much anything, serious or humorous.

In September of 1982, at the computer department of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a humorous exchange developed into a serious, or at at least semi-serious, online discussion. Someone made a joke about a building having a contaminated elevator. Someone else pointed out people might take it seriously. That led to a series of posts about how to earmark comments that were meant to be humorous. At 11:44 a.m. on Sept. 19, 1982, Professor Scott Fahlman made a suggestion:

“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

: – (

Thus were invented the first emoticons. (The word “emoticon” shoves the words “emotion” and “icon” together and trims off a few excess letters.) The “read it sideways” part is what makes them practical, allowing you to put the whole emoticon on a single line of type. They transformed written communications. As a Carnegie Mellon press release for the 25th anniversary of the emoticon put it:

“By stringing together a colon, hyphen and parenthesis, Fahlman gave computer users a tool to express emotion in their email messages. For the first time, people were able to communicate humor or positive feelings with a smile, or express negative feelings with a frown : – (. The little characters helped to dispel misunderstandings and squelch what otherwise could result in “flame wars,” in which the original subject of a conversation was completely lost in diatribe.”

A headline from Business insider went farther: “Emoticons have basically saved human communication”. That may be hyperbole : – ) but certainly emoticons can be useful, quick substitutes for things that are hard to express with written words, such as tone of voice or body language. Not surprisingly, people quickly devised additional emoticons, such as:


; – ) = a wink
: – P = a tease or sticking your tongue out
:-O = surprise or a gasp
:’-( = really sad/crying
: – D = a big smile
: – | = I feel nothing
:-X = my lips are sealed
O:-) = I’m extra good/happy (the O is a halo)

To read Professor Fahlman’s memories of the emoticon, click here.

To read the original online bulletin board thread, click here.

It’s worth noting (or maybe it’s not, but I’m going to note it anyway) that Professor Fahlman’s emoticons had noses, denoted with the dash. Later on, people started dropping the dash, creating the “noseless” emoticons: : ). The first emoticon I ever saw was noseless, and until I researched this article I assumed emoticons with noses were the later invention. : – ) : )

It’s hard to say if the emoticon directly spawned the emoji, but it certainly was an influence. The word “emoji” combines two Japanese characters, “e” or “eh” meaing picture, and “moji” meaning “character”, essentially “pictograph.” The resemblance to English “emotion” is coincidental.

Though people sometimes use the words interchangeably, emoticons and emojis are two different things — emoticons are keystrokes, emojis are graphics.

Emojis were created in the 1990s, mostly for use in early cell phones. They often had limits on the number of characters that could be used in text messages, and learning to type on a miniature keyboard can be a daunting task. Being able to pop in a teeny tiny graphic saved space, time, and typing. Over time, more and more emojis were added to the libraries, and you can now find apps that allow you to create your own.

Some word processing programs can auto-translate emoticon keystrokes into emojis — sometimes whether you want it or not. If you look carefully at the emoticons in this article, you’ll notice most of them have spaces between the colon, dash, and parenthesis. I’ll give you three guesses why. 🙂

But ultimately, emoticons and emojis perform the same function — rendering emotions and nuances of human communication that can be hard to express with the written word by itself. And it all started this day in 1982, with a quick message on an online bulletin board.