Psychologist Refutes Paternity Claim to So-called “Father” of Emoticons

So, what if Henry Ford wasn’t the first to invent the automobile and Thomas Edison didn’t invent the first light bulb or Alexander Graham Bell wasn’t the father of the telephone? Do we care?

Apparently yes.

I’d like to throw my hat in the ring of “first-timers,” proclaiming that I am the true father of emoticons and emojis. Well sort of, you can decide.

General consensus has it that the internet-era genesis of emoticons (“emotion icon,” a typographic representation of emotions), occurred in September 1982, when computer scientist Scott Fahlman enhanced his Carnegie Mellon University message board by suggesting that :-) and :-( could be used to help distinguish jokes and sarcasm from serious intentions.

For thirty-five years, this claim has gone unchallenged. Until now. But first a bit of history.

It all started in 1963 when Hanover Trust Company, because low employee morale, approached Harvey Ball, a freelance artist, to come up with an image that would increase morale. Ball created the now iconic yellow circle with two black dots representing eyes and a black arc representing the mouth — the smiley face was born! The executives at Hanover loved it and Harvey Ball was paid the paltry sum of $45 dollars for his creation.

Was Harvey Ball the “father” of emoticons?

Well, yes, in the sense that he spurred a yellow-faced 1970’s phenomenon that became embedded on everything from tee shirts to cookie jars. But the question remains, who was the first, first? After all, if we can go back to 1700 BC where a Hittite pot was dug up in Turkey displaying a large smiley face painted on it, can we say with any degree of certainty that Harvey Ball or Scott Fahlman, should be credited with the title, father of emoticons?

But wait, what about “emojis?” Unlike emoticons, emojis, which were created in the 1998 by the NTT DoCoMo Japanese firm, go beyond text-based emoticons using actual cartoon pictures (you can go to the message section of your smartphone to select emojis representing just about any emotion you may want to convey). So, if the original smiley face spawned the emoticon and the emoticon spawned the emoji, was there perhaps an intermediate, missing link?

Ah-ha! Yes! Someone, me, expanded the happy smile to convey a comprehensive array of human expressions.

The Swiss psychiatrist, C.G. Jung might have postulated that these images are part of our collective unconscious, that smiley faces (i.e., facial recognition) have always been around in one form or another imprinted on our collective unconscious. My own research for my doctoral dissertation posed the question as to whether or not there is, in fact, a universal, a pan-cultural, instinctual ability to recognize certain facial expressions.

One of the major arguments I encountered was whether or not the ability to recognize facial expressions is innate or learned. Not to bore you with my dissertation, but I found considerable research to support that yes, our brains are programmed to recognize universal facial patterns, and yes, there is a learned component as well. Learning to react and to accurately interpret facial expressions has, no doubt, been the cornerstone of human social functioning.

In 1973, with a smiley faced cookie jar on my desk, I set out to test the hypothesis that facial character drawings could, indeed, be used to non-verbally assess various personality variables. I began to draw hundreds of smiley-like faces, sad faces, angry faces, surprised faces, and so on. The next job was to assess what most people saw when looking at a particular face. After exhaustive testing, in fact, this was during the pre-computer days when in order to run a statistic called a multiple linear regression, I had to buy time on the Navy’s computer in San Diego. Today, the same computation can be done on your ipad.

My results were significant!

I discovered and labeled three dimensions, pleasant-unpleasant, attention-rejection, and sleep tension. Using these three dimensions composed of thirteen faces (above), I now had a test that could accurately, and non-verbally, assess personality (the test, The Facial Interpersonal Perception Inventory (FIPI) was published and copyrighted in 1980).

So, if Harvey Ball got the smiley-face phenomenon rolling in 1963, and Scott Fahlman, translated this into computer text in 1981, then perhaps it was the middle link — yours truly — that first expanded “smiley” in 1973 to convey a range of human emotions — emotional icons.

So, now I go back to my original question, do you feel, as a matter of fact, that I might have rights to the claim, “father of emoticons?” And after all is said and done, does it all matter whether or not I was the “first?” Not really, but, ya gotta admit, it’s great to think you were, in fact, the first. 😊

About the Author
Dr. Joe Luciani has been a practicing clinical psychologist for more than 40 years. He’s the internationally bestselling author of the Self-Coaching series of books, now published in 10 languages. His latest book is, Unlearning Anxiety & Depression: The 4-Step Self-Coaching Program to Reclaim Your Life (Goodman Beck, April 28, 2020). He appears frequently on national TV, radio and online, and has been featured in numerous national media sites. Learn more at self-coaching.net.

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