The Amazing Story of Emojis and Emoticons and How It All Started

Emoji is our favorite language that we use every second. It’s these little characters that help us express our feelings and messages in a fun way. We all love using them!

Well, you may have wondered when they appeared and who created them. While emojis have appeared in the 1990s, emoticons have appeared a very long time ago. Let’s talk about the emoticons’ history before the appearance of emojis, then we’ll get into emojis themselves.

Before we start, you should know that emoticons are different from emojis! Emojis are real images rendered on your device, whereas emoticons are simply basic punctuation characters created from your keyboard that display feelings.

1. Pre-Emoticons

First, emoticons began with combinations of punctuation that could be used in typography to replace language, like these lines that were included in Robert Herrick’s poet in 1648:

Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, (smiling yet:)

But experts have argues that punctuation at that time was unsettled, so maybe Herrick didn’t mean to represent a smiling face.
The first emoticon actually appeared with typewriters in the 1800s. Interestingly, it appeared in a speech by Abraham Lincoln (USA president, 1861-1865) that contained:

applause and laughter ; )

While there has been some debate whether it’s a typo or not, it’s considered the first appearance of an emoticon.

A speech by Abraham Lincoln

In the late 1800s , the first collection of emoticons were created, and they were published in the U.S. satirical magazine Puck.

Emoticons published in magazine “Puck” in 1881

Many years later, in 1912, American author Ambrose Bierce was the first to suggest that a bracket could be used to represent a smiling face.
Following his idea, many people started experimenting how different punctuation marks can be used to display emotions. For example, # represents a frowny face, and * represents a wink.

2. Creation of :-) and :-( and the Revolution of Emoticons

Scott Fahlman

1982 was the year when the first true emoticons were invented, and they are the smiley face :-) and the frowny face :-(. It was the first time when multiple punctuation marks are combined to display emotions and replace language. The computer scientist Scott Fahlman introduced these emoticons in a conversation between him and other computer scientists via the Carnegie Mellon University computer science general board. Here’s the message:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman             :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>

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 the revolution started from here!
In the 80s and 90s, emoticons began to be adopted globally, and we got two different major styles of emoticons, the Western-style and the Japanese-style .

The Western-style is influenced by the first two emoticons created. They usually have the eyes on the left, followed by the nose and the mouth, like :'( ;) >:D.

The Japanese-style emoticons (Kaomoji, 顔文字, lit. “Face Characters”) are a complete revolution in their own! They’re heavily influenced by Anime and Manga, and they focus on conveying more emotion through eyes and mouths.
Examples are (*_*) {^_^} (◕‿◕✿).

3. The Born of Emoji

The original collection of 176 Emoji characters designed for i-mode. (c) NTT DoCoMo, Inc.

As we said before, Emoji were predated by the emoticon, which is just a basic combination of punctuation marks created from the keyboard. Emoji (絵文字, lit. “Picture Word”) appeared in 1999 in Japan, where people there were obsessed with exchanging picture messages via mobile phones. So, how could mobile phone carriers take advantage from this trend and find new ways to express information?

Well, here’s how.
There’s a Japanese artist called Shigetaka Kurita who worked on the development team for i-mode, an early mobile internet platform from Japan’s main mobile carrier, NTT DoCoMo. He wanted to create a better way to convey complex meaning over text, and to make a new fun way to express information. Here’s what he said:

“Everything was shown by text. Even the weather forecast was displayed as ‘fine’. When I saw it, I found it difficult to understand. Japanese TV weather forecasts have always included pictures or symbols to describe the weather—for example, a picture of sun meant ‘sunny’. I’d rather see a picture of the sun, instead of a text saying ‘fine’.”

Shigetaka Kurita

So, Kurita created a set of pixel images that could be selected from a keyboard-like grid within the i-mode interface, then sent on mobiles and pages as their own individual characters, and from there, the first Emoji character set was born!

After the huge success of Emoji, the other Japan’s mobile carriers started designing their own set of characters, but each carrier’s character set was proprietary and not compatible with others. That created a big problem, because if you send an Emoji to a phone that uses another network, it may not display correctly. This is why the standardization of Emoji became important.

Now, Emoji is currently a worldwide standard, and there are more than 3,500 amazing Emoji characters exist, compatible across all devices. How did emojis develop throughout the years?

4. The Development of Emoji

A collection of Emoji characters by Emojione

Emoji began spreading worldwide to all other countries. It was adopted by Apple, Google, and other companies. But to avoid fragmentation and incompatibility between devices, there must be a standard. In 2007, a software internationalization team at Google requested that the Unicode Consortium recognize Emoji and create standards around it. The Unicode Consortium welcomed the request and decided to incorporate Emoji into Unicode.

If you don’t know what is the Unicode Consortium, it’s the organization that maintains and develops the Unicode standard.
What’s the Unicode standard by the way?

Well, you know that all types of multimedia (images, videos, numbers, and text) are encoded and represented as bits (0s and 1s) in computers . Each type of multimedia is represented in a specific pattern of bits, and in text, each letter or character has a corresponding digital representation. All devices in the world use the same text encoding and representation standard, which is Unicode. The Unicode standard covers all languages in the world, so this is why any device in the world understands any language, and this is why the text you send to another device will look the same on it.

Emoji is now a Unicode standard, and it evolves year after year! Each new version of Unicode adds more new amazing characters with the help of tech giants, like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Facebook, and more, which are all dues-paying members of the Unicode consortium.
We now have more than 3,500 characters , and there are more characters and features that are added year after year. In 2015 for example, the consortium introduced the option to change skin tone on people emojis, and added more types of people doing more things.

And finally…

It’s the language we all love to use all the time , it continuously evolves to represent more cultures and types of people, and yeah… you can contribute to it! The development process is not exclusive, and you can submit a proposal too. Learn more on how to submit a proposal and the requirements needed here.
Tell us in the comments, if you could add any new Emoji to the Unicode standard, what would it be?


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