A fascinating piece in Symmetry Magazine traces the invention of the smiley face to the physics professors at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982:
The use of the smiley face may be frowned upon in professional communications, but it’s an essential part of the lexicon of the Internet. It didn’t take long after the invention of the message board for people to start using it. According to alumni of Carnegie Mellon University, it all began with a joke in a conversation about physics.
On Sept. 16, 1982, Neil Swartz, a computer scientist at CMU, posed a physics problem to his computer science colleagues on the department’s “bboard,” a form of early online message board similar to today’s Facebook group. Bboard users often posted science puzzles for one another to solve and had been discussing the riddle of whether a canary could fly in an elevator during free fall.
Swartz presented a new scenario, which involved a lit candle mounted on an elevator wall and a drop of mercury on the floor. “The cable snaps and the elevator falls,” Swartz wrote. “What happens to the candle and the mercury?”
That evening, fellow computer scientist Howard Gayle responded with a facetious message titled “WARNING!” “Because of a recent physics experiment, the leftmost elevator has been contaminated with mercury,” Gayle wrote. “There is also some slight fire damage. Decontamination should be complete by 08:00 Friday.”
Despite posts noting that the warning was meant in jest, some people apparently took the notice at face value, believing a mercury spill had actually taken place. Various bboard users began joking about different symbols that could identify posts that weren’t meant to be serious. Eventually, Scott Fahlman, then a computer science research assistant professor, proposed using 🙂 for joke posts—or, given the preponderance of joke posts, simply using 😦 for serious ones.
Read the rest of the story here.