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First "smiley" shows its face

A Microsoft researcher apparently rediscovers the first known computerized instance of the combination of characters used to signify a smile in e-mail and on bulletin boards.

A Microsoft researcher has apparently rediscovered the first known computerized instance of a "smiley," the combination of characters used to signify a smile in e-mail and on bulletin boards.

The smiley has spawned a whole range of emoticons, as they are now known, since its appearance on a bulletin board discussion at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. Emoticons have become an important part of the worldwide online social culture because they make it easy to communication emotions quickly--something that many people find difficult to express using words.

Mike Jones, who works in the systems and networking research group at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash., kicked off the effort to find the first smiley in February.

On a Web site, Jones says that many people were involved in the effort to find the first instance of the smiley. "I kicked off the effort...by looking through some old bulletin board program sources," Jones said on the site. He remembers seeing a Carnegie Mellon bulletin board posting in which the characters were first proposed to signify a joke, back in the early '80s.

With help from former Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science facilities director Howard Wactlar and current director Bob Cosgrove, Jones found backup tapes covering the period from 1981 to 1983. Restoring them required a nine-track tape drive and enlisting the help of a number of people to scan through the postings until the smiley posting was found.

The first use of the characters :-) to signify a smile was, believes Jones, in a posting made on Sept. 19, 1982, by Scott E. Fahlman.

"I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: :-)," wrote Fahlman at the time. "Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use :-(."

The date of Sept. 19, 1982, could join other significant dates in the information revolution. The Internet is generally considered to have been created 13 years previously, almost to the day. E-mail has its origins in 1971.

E-mail, like the Internet itself, does not have an exact date of birth. Ray Tomlinson, a U.S. engineer considered the "father of e-mail," can't quite recall when the first message was sent, what it said or even who the recipient was.

Tomlinson got around difficulties with existing methods of exchanging data by creating remote personal mailboxes that could send and receive messages via a computer network. He also conceived of the now-famous "@" symbol to ensure a message was sent to a designated recipient.

ZDNet UK's Matt Loney reported from London.