The emoticon, punctuation to depict a facial expression, began 30 years ago this week. Using three keystrokes, the colon, dash and parenthesis, to suggest a smile may not be a great scientific advance, like the coronary stent or computer chip. But the emoticon has been simple, useful and enduring.
There had been previous hints of emoticons. A newspaper transcript of Abraham Lincoln drawing a laugh in 1862 follows it with a semi-colon and parentheses, but that may have simply been a printer's typo.
The emoticon truly began to take off one afternoon in September, 1982, when a Carnegie-Mellon University computer scientist named Neil Swartz proposed a problem on an e-mail message board for some of his fellow academics: Suppose an elevator falls with a lit candle on the wall and a drop of mercury on the floor.
"What happens," he asked, "to the candle and the mercury?"
Theories zipped back and forth until Prof. Rudy Neved pointed out that spilled mercury is a safety hazard.
Professor Swartz reassured the group that his spill was strictly theoretical, and said, "Maybe we should adopt a convention of putting a star (*) in the subject field of any notice which is to be taken as a joke."
This spark of an idea set off a blaze of responses.
Professor Antony Stents suggested an asterisk for good jokes, a percentage sign for bad ones and both for "jokes that are so bad, they're funny."
Professor Keith Wright chimed in that the ampersand is the funniest character on the keyboard. "It looks funny (like a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter)."
Professor Leonard Hamey suggested the number sign, "because it looks like two lips with teeth showing between them."
Then, computer science professor Scott Fahlman wrote:
I propose ...the following character sequence for joke markers:
He made a colon for eyes, a dash for a nose, right parentheses for a smile and advised, "Read it sideways."
"I expected my note might amuse a few of my friends," Fahlman has been quoted as saying this week, "and that would be the end of it."
But the emoticon has stuck for 30 years.
Devising the emoticon is not like inventing the light bulb, but it still might illuminate something about creativity. A breakthrough was hatched in a mix of isolation and collaboration. Individuals proposed ideas, and the ideas sparked off one another until one person came up with three deft strokes that made a thought visible.
A lot of good ideas never quite take flight, but they can leave an imprint on those that do.
Semi-colon, dash, parentheses.