Emoticons Turn 30: A Brief History

Emoticons - or emotional icons - while annoying to some and useful to others, have a rather rich history. Though they may actually date back 150 years, the modern-day emoticons we use in emails, texts and instant messaging today are generally recognized to have been started by a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1982.

Here's a look back at the evolution of the emoticon over the past 150 years.

Though it may just be a typo, one of the earliest instances of emoticon use may have come from "Honest Abe" Lincoln. An historical newspaper specialist found what appears to be a sideways winking smiley face embedded in The New York Times transcript of an 1862 Abraham Lincoln speech.


The "smiley face" designed by Harvey Ball has become a ubiquitous symbol since the Worcester, Mass., designer was hired by the e State Mutual Life Assurance Company to design a morale-boosting symbol for the company. Ball's design, which was first used on buttons, desk cards and posters, has since become a lasting international symbol.

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Emoticons as we use them today can be traced to Scott Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who is widely considered to be the father of the emoticon. Writing on an online bulletin board, Fahlman told readers, "I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-) Read it sideways." And the rest is history.

Further emoticons

One might say that emoticons took off as instant messaging became a popular form of quick online communication. AOL's Instant Messenger became the preferred form of communication throughout the 1990s and beyond, and the 12 emoticons provided on the platform - from kissing to crying - certainly helped users convey a wide range of emotions with a simple click of the mouse.


As the modern world went more mobile and households across the country went online, emoticons became much more popular - so much that they soon multiplied into a cast of thousands. With so much to convey, why use words? With a couple of clicks, you can give a smooch, express extreme duress or share a beer with a friend.

As Skype became a popular platform for online chatter, so did its not-so-secret emoticons. By putting certain phrases in parenthesis, users could convey many terms and expressions, from the naughty (mooning) to the somewhat obscure (pool party) to the precise (fubar).


When Apple unveiled its new iOS6 platform, many were delighted to see that a new feature included emoticons of same-sex partners holding hands and kissing alongside other heterosexual emoticons.