On April 12 1979, Kevin McKenzie of Arpanet's MsgGroup made the following suggestion:
Perhaps we could extend the set of punctuation we use, i.e.: If I wish to indicate that a particular sentence is meant with tongue-in-cheek, I would write it so:
"Of course you know I agree with all the current administration's policies -)."
The '-)' indicates tongue-in-cheek.
At that time, the initial response was less than enthusiastic and the idea sank into oblivion.
Two years later, Scott Fahlman, a professor from the University of Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh) sent this message:
9-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman
From: Scott E Fahlman
I propose 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
From the Fahlman message, the phenomenon expanded at great speed. First, it propagated to other universities and research laboratories, then worldwide. A few months later, tens of variants began to appear in messages, becoming more and more elaborate.
However, not everybody agreed that Scott or McKenzie were the true inventors of this system. Some chronologies assure that PLATO educational system users began using smiley characters probably as early as 1972.
The main problem was that the original messages in which the smiley was invented had been lost... until September 2002. After a significant effort to locate it, the original post made by Fahlman on the CMU CS general Bboard was retrieved by Jeff Baird from an October 1982 Vax backup tape. The McKenzie message was also retrieved, here are the relevant entries.
Nowadays, books have been published listing and describing hundreds of types of smileys, but in actual practice, only a few are widely used.