SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
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 semicolon 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 email 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 Professor Rudy Neved pointed out 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 - then he put an asterisk - in the subject field of any notice which is to be taken as a joke. Well, this spark of an idea set off a blaze of responses. Professor Antony Stents suggested an asterisk for good jokes and a percentage sign for bad ones, and both for jokes that are so bad, they're funny. A Professor Keith Wright chimed in that the ampersand is the funniest character on the keyboard. It looks 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," Professor 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. Semicolon, dash, parentheses.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN YOU'RE SMILING")
LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh, when you're smiling, when you're smiling...
SIMON: And hope you are when you listen to NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.