A Microsoft researcher has rediscovered what is believed to be the first known instance of a "smiley", the combination of characters used to signify a smile in email and bulletin board communications.
The smiley has spawned a whole range of emoticons since its appearance on a bulletin board discussion at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in 1982. The emoticons, as they are known, have become an important part of the worldwide online social culture because they make it easy to communicate emotions quickly -- something that many people find difficult to express using words.
Mike Jones, who works in the Systems and Networking Research Group at Microsoft's Redmond headquarters, kicked off the effort to find the first smiley in February 2002.
On his Web site, Jones says that many people were involved in the effort to find the first instance of the smiley. "I kicked off the effort... by looking through some old bulletin board program sources," says Jones, on his site. Jones remembered seeing a CMU bulletin board posting in which the characters were first proposed to signify a joke, back in the early eighties.
With help from former CMU School of Computer Science facilities director Howard Wactlar and current director Bob Cosgrove, Jones found backup tapes covering the period from 1981 to 1983. Restoring them required a nine-track tape drive and enlisting the help of a number of people to scan through the postings until the smiley posting was found.
The first use of the characters :-) to signify a smile was, believes Jones, in a posting made on 19 September, 1982, by Scott E. Fahlman.
"I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: :-)," wrote Fahlmann at the time. "Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use :-(."
The date 19 September, 1982, is now likely to join the lexicon of other significant dates in the information revolution. The Internet is generally considered to have been created 13 years previously, almost to the day. The original PC, meanwhile, appeared in August 1981, and email has its origins in 1971.
Email, like the Internet itself, does not have an exact date of birth. Ray Tomlinson, the American engineer considered the "father of email", can't quite recall when the first message was sent, what it said, or even who the recipient was.
Tomlinson got around difficulties with existing methods of exchanging data by creating remote personal mailboxes that could send and receive messages via a computer network. He also conceived the now-famous "@" symbol to ensure a message was sent to a designated recipient.