Carnegie Mellon University
Skip navigation and jump directly to page content

Sept. 12: Carnegie Mellon's Smiley Emoticon Celebrates 25th Anniversary


Anne Watzman

Byron Spice

Carnegie Mellon's Smiley :-) Emoticon
Celebrates 25th Anniversary Sept. 19

Computer Science Department Creates Smiley Award for Innovation in Online Communication


PITTSBURGH—The ubiquitous Smiley-face :-) emoticon, created in 1982 by Carnegie Mellon University Computer Science Research Professor Scott E. Fahlman, turns 25 on Sept. 19, and Carnegie Mellon computer scientists are celebrating a milestone that revolutionized computer communication.

By stringing together a colon, hyphen and parenthesis, Fahlman gave computer users a tool to express emotion in their email messages. For the first time, people were able to communicate humor or positive feelings with a smile, or express negative feelings with a frown :-(. The little characters helped to dispel misunderstandings and squelch what otherwise could result in "flame wars," in which the original subject of a conversation was completely lost in diatribe.

Smileys quickly spread from Carnegie Mellon to other universities, businesses and, as the Internet grew in popularity, around the world. Smileys in infinite variations continue to humanize email to this day, including Yahoo!'s Messenger instant messaging system.

When Fahlman created the Smiley, few people were using computers, and even fewer were sending messages. But Carnegie Mellon's Computer Science Department, the foundation of today's School of Computer Science, was a hotbed of innovation and lengthy conversations. Messages in phosphorescent green or orange characters were constantly being posted to online electronic bulletin boards (b-boards), the newsrooms of the day.

Fahlman posted his suggestion in response to a humorous message in which someone was joking about a contaminated elevator in a building. Another person worried that some people might take that as a serious safety warning, provoking a discussion about the limits of online humor and how to mark comments not meant to be taken seriously.

"I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-)," wrote Fahlman.   "Read it sideways," he added, helpfully. And so, at 11:44 a.m., Sept. 19, 1982, Smiley was born.

Twenty-five years later, in honor of that event, Fahlman and his colleagues in the Computer Science Department are inaugurating the annual "Smiley Award" for innovation in technology-assisted, human-to-human communication. The award will be based on a competition open to individual students and small teams in Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science. The winning entry will receive a $500 cash prize, sponsored by Yahoo! Inc.

"Yahoo! is pleased to sponsor the Smiley Award and congratulates Carnegie Mellon on this 25th anniversary of the smiley. The smiley captures the Yahoo! spirit — connecting people around the world to their passions, their communities and their information, and having fun. We look forward to the next 25 years of ideas and invention from colleges and universities," said Ken Schmidt, Yahoo! director of academic relations.

"Scientists and technology leaders the world over know Scott well for his great computer science research," said Peter Lee, head of the Computer Science Department. "His seminal work on knowledge representation contributed fundamentally to the field of artificial intelligence (AI), and his leadership in the design of Common Lisp has had a major impact on programmers and researchers for the past two decades."

During a career spanning more than 35 years, Fahlman has performed research in many areas of artificial intelligence and its applications, including problem solving, knowledge representation, image processing, natural language, document classification, artificial neural networks and the use of massively parallel machines to solve AI problems. His current focus is the Scone Knowledge-Base System. He is a fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

But despite all his research contributions, Fahlman is best known as the creator of the email Smiley. He continues to be amazed and amused at Smiley's success.

"It has been fascinating to watch this phenomenon grow from a little message I tossed off in 10 minutes to something that has spread all around the world," said Fahlman. "I sometimes wonder how many millions of people have typed these characters, and how many have turned their heads to one side to view a Smiley, in the 25 years since this all started."

For the inside story on Fahlman see For the inside story on the smiley, see