Smileys Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


4 Conversations

The Smiley (smiley - smiley), a face made up of a circle, two eyes and a smiling mouth with no nose, is a symbol invented in the 1960s. In the film Forrest Gump it was claimed, tongue in cheek, that Forrest had invented the Smiley - in actual fact it was invented by a Mr Harvey R Ball. It was usually drawn in black and yellow and (as much as the Peace or Ban the Bomb signs) it was a symbol of the hippy generation. Sadly, Mr Ball passed away in Massachusetts on April 4, 2001. His obituary can be found here.

So much a part of American culture was the smiley symbol that when IBM produced the first personal computer, they included a smiley in the character set, although by some accounts it was hard to display the character easily.

The History

A fascinating thread from an 1980s educational bulletin board exists, claiming ownership of the emoticon (the ASCII symbol that represents the smiley). It seems to be posted as part of a Microsoft BBoard1 but at the same time is more likely to be a university 'intranet'. It turns out to be part of a long Carnegie-Mellon University bulletin board thread started around 1982. After several attempts in the thread at comedy, including a physics puzzle that lead to the evacuation of an entire elevator system2, the need for a 'humour' symbol was established...

As a result of the above, and other 'humorous' posts, the need for some kind of header that alerted people to the joke was obvious. Not only that, but it was suggested that a symbol for serious communication was needed too! The first suggestions put forward were the percent '%', for humour, and asterisk '*' for something serious. As it turned out, these were not funny enough and were too hard to remember. The ampersand '&' was also considered, since it 'looks like a laughing fat man' and hash '#' supposedly resembles the teeth of a grin. It was also suggested that the hash symbol is what someone would look like if they 'laughed their heads off'. Finally, on 19 September, 1982, at 11.44am, a gentleman named Scott E Fahlman suggested the famous: :-) and :-( Also proposed were: (-: and )-:which can be interchanged with their reverse cousins in this thread (only fair for all the left handed typists out there). It would appear that someone else, sadly not identified, named the former a 'smiley' or 'emoticon'. This does beggar the question though: what the other one be called? A 'frowny', perhaps?

Confirmation in the form of an encyclopedia entry states, in part:

(An) Emoticon is a synthetic portmanteau word based on 'emotion' and 'icon'. An emoticon, also called a smiley, is a sequence of ASCII characters used to represent a human face and express an emotion. Emoticons that express happy or positive emotions are typically classified as smileys... The creator of the original ASCII emoticons: :-) and :-( was Scott Fahlman.

It is interesting to note that part of the mark-up language3 of h2g2 automatically converts the: :-) symbol into the smiley smiley - smiley. This was further complicated by the fact that when ':' was used, followed by '(' to denote the start of an HTML address, it was converted to smiley - sadface!

It's nice, if somewhat bizarre, to know that the smileys of the world, in all their weird and wonderful variation, came from a few practical jokes based on a physics puzzle. Having said that, it is doubtful if the original owners will have foreseen the likes of: k:-0 ...the emoticon for 'Oh, my God! There's an axe in my head!', an important phrase that has been translated into 102 different languages here. All this humour derived from a simple qwerty keyboard and should give hope to all the dry, dusty scientists out there (not to mention their students)!

Now you know all about Smileys, don't forget to say 'Happy Birthday!' smiley - cake to the ASCII smiley (perhaps more properly the emoticon) on its next birthday. Not to mention a hearty 'Cheers!' smiley - cheers to Mr Ball and Mr Fahlman.

A great general description and original source for the h2g2 smiley4 can be found here.

1'BBoard' is software shorthand for bulletin board.2The original problem was this: if a candle burns on a ledge in an elevator and a blob of mercury is on the floor, what happens to them if the cable is cut? The original answer involved the candle going out due to a lack of convection and the blob of mercury creating a ball which pushes against the floor so that it bounces back and forth between floor and ceiling. These turned out to be gross simplifications of what might really happen but the thread eventually turned into a (mock?) mercury contamination issue.3Specifically known on h2g2 as GuideML.4One final note, normally the ancient and most sacred editorial rules for h2g2 Edited Guide Entries would normally never countenance, not for a single minute, the inclusion of smileys into the body of a text. However, an exception was made (just this once, mind) for this entry. smiley - smiley

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Edited by

h2g2 Editors

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more