A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 80: irony archaeology

In the wake of my last post (Miscellany № 79: jè?), I was doing a bit of digging into the history of emoticons — those recumbent smileys used to signify happiness (:)), sadness (:(), mehness (:|) and so on — when I came across Scott Fahlman’s personal website. Fahlman is the man famous for inventing the emoticon and, although I’ve written about him before, both here and in the Shady Characters book, in both cases I skated over the exact circumstances of his invention because, well, I didn’t know what they were. Having found his webpage at Carnegie Mellon University, however, I now find that the whole story has been there for the reading for a decade or more!

Fahlman writes that the creation of :-) and :-( came about late in 1982 on a bulletin board run by Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science department. Thanks to some digital archaeology on the part of Fahlman’s colleagues, the thread leading up to that fateful moment can be read in full at his CMU faculty webpage. We jump into the story in September 1982 with a bulletin board message in which CMUer Neil Swartz posed a physics brainteaser for his colleagues:

16-Sep-82 12:09    Neil Swartz at CMU-750R      Pigeon type question
This question does not involve pigeons, but is similar:
There is a lit candle in an elevator mounted on a bracket attached to the middle of one wall (say, 2" from the wall).  A drop of mercury is on the floor.  The cable snaps and the elevator falls. What happens to the candle and the mercury?

Howard Gayle responded a few hours later — not to answer the question, but to make a deadpan joke about it:

16-Sep-82 17:21    Howard Gayle at CMU-780G     WARNING!
Because of a recent physics experiment, the leftmost elevator has been contaminated with mercury.  There is also some slight fire damage. Decontamination should be complete by 08:00 Friday.

Not everyone saw the funny side. One Rudy Nedved complained that a mercury spill is no laughing matter:

16-Sep-82 21:34    Rudy Nedved at CMU-10A       Re: WARNING!!
The previous bboard message [by Howard Gayle] about mercury is related to the comment by Neil Swartz about Physics experiments. It is not an actual problem.
Last year parts of Doherty Hall were closed off because of spilled mercury. My high school closed down a lab because of a dropped bottle of mercury.
My apology for spoiling the joke but people were upset and yelling fire in a crowded theatre is bad news....so are jokes on day old comments.

Swartz, the original poster, weighed in the next day to clear things up, in a tone of voice so studiedly innocent that I can’t help but wonder if he secretly took Gayle’s side in the matter. Take special note of his second paragraph:

17-Sep-82 10:58    Neil Swartz at CMU-750R      Elevator posts
Apparently there has been some confusion about elevators and such.  After talking to Rudy, I have discovered that there is no mercury spill in any of the Wean hall elevators.  Many people seem to have taken the notice about the physics department seriously.
Maybe we should adopt a convention of putting a star (*) in the subject field of any notice which is to be taken as a joke.

Isn’t that interesting? The idea of using the asterisk as a sarcasm mark isn’t a new one (I covered Michele Buchanan’s similar proposal here at Shady Characters back in 2014, for instance), but Swartz’s suggestion may be the earliest one I’ve come across yet.

The denizens of the Carnegie Mellon message board did not stop with an asterisk. Swartz’s colleagues joined the conversation with a host of suggestions — all tongue in cheek, naturally:

17-Sep-82 14:59    Joseph Ginder at CMU-10A     (*%)
I believe that the joke character should be % rather than *.
17-Sep-82 15:15    Anthony Stentz at CMU-780G   (*%)
How about using * for good jokes and % for bad jokes? We could even use *% for jokes that are so bad, they're funny.
17-Sep-82 17:40    Keith Wright at CMU-10A      *%$ Jokes!
No, no, no!  Surely everyone will agree that "&" is the funniest character on the keyboard.  It looks funny (like a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter).  It sounds funny (say it loud and fast three times).  I just know if I could get my nose into the vacuum of the CRT it would even smell funny!

…and so on and so forth. Three days after Neil Swartz’s original post, Scott Fahlman took to his keyboard to make his own proposal:

19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman             :-)
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:

Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.  For this, use


And so history was made. Fahlman himself says that his suggestion was a casual one, dashed off in a hurry (he notes that his post is missing a few words, for instance), but despite this, :-) and :-( quickly spread beyond his host institution. In November of the same year, for example, one James Morris at CMU forwarded an expanded list of smileys to a correspondent at Xerox’ famed Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC. As Morris wrote:

Recently, Scott Fahlman at CMU devised a scheme for annotating one's messages to overcome this problem.  If you turn your head sideways to look at the three characters :-) they look sort of like a smiling face.  Thus, if someone sends you a message that says "Have you stopped beating your wife?:-)" you know they are joking. [...] Since Scott's original proposal, many further symbols have been proposed here:

(:-) for messages dealing with bicycle helmets
@= for messages dealing with nuclear war
<:-) for dumb questions
oo for somebody's head-lights are on messages
o>-<|= for messages of interest to women
~= a candle, to annotate flaming messages

Given the eye-opening sexism in his message (“o>-<|= for messages of interest to women”; a crack about wife-beating — really?), perhaps Morris should have added a ~= to its title. Regardless: the smiley was born, and it was fruitful. It continues to live on today, both in its original text form and transmuted into emoji, as “☺️️”, “😃️”, and many others. Not bad for a hastily-written message on a long-lost bulletin board.

Oh, and if you were wondering what happens to the candle and the mercury when the lift drops, head over to Scott Fahlman’s page to find out.

1 comment on “Miscellany № 80: irony archaeology

  1. Comment posted by Waupsztas on

    “a crack about wife-beat­ing — really?”

    Umm… you know that “have you stopped beating your wife” has long been used as a classic example of a “loaded question”? It is quoted as such in countless books on law, philosophy, semantics etc. It’s not some kind of a spur-of-the-moment joke making light of domestic violence.

Leave a comment

Required fields are marked *. Your email address will not be published. If you prefer to contact me privately, please see the Contact page.

Leave a blank line for a new paragraph. You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>. Learn how your com­ment data is pro­cessed.