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The Oldest Smiley Icon is 4,000 Years Old!

Maybe we're a little late to the celebration this year, but did you know the International World Smile Day is celebrated on the 1st of October every year? In this article, we explore the cultural phenomenon behind this day - the smiley face. Have you ever thought how remarkable it is that we recognize a smiling face in such a simple illustration? It usually doesn't even have a nose!

The Pareidolia Effect

Ever felt like the electric socket has a gloomy expression? Pareidolia is an effect that makes us see faces in the simplest patterns. Currently, the earliest documented smiley known to us appears on a 4,000-year-old pot found in Turkey in 2017. The archeological expedition was led by professor Nicolo Marchetti of the University of Bologna, in Italy. Here it is below.

It would be nice to imagine that this smiley is the ancestral father of the iconic yellow smiley face we all know, which was born only in the 60s thanks to the illustrator Harvey Ball. It was just like any other ordinary project for him. He was hired by State Mutual Life Assurance Company to create a motivating and positive commercial design. Neither he nor the company knew they were making history. Ball was paid 45$ for his work.

The smiley icon has been at the center of trademark and ownership litigations since the 70s. Ball declared October 1 as World Smile Day. This was his way to take a positive stance, instead of being dragged to court with ownership battles. The day was first celebrated in 1999, and it has been annually honored ever since!

The Invention of the Emoticon

Thanks to the pareidolia effect, it was only a matter of time before we realized that a colon and a bracket can make a happy face. The :) icon, sometimes typed :-) with a nose, was born as a solution to a problem that emerged with the newly found rapid online chat in the 1980s. Professor Scott Fahlman of the Carnegie Mellon University noticed that it was hard to tell the emotional tone of messages sent in online chats with his colleagues. He suggested :-) to indicate humor or sarcasm and :-( to indicate seriousness, thus inventing the emoticon.


Our next and current stop in the history of the smiley face is the emoji, which wouldn't have been brought into existence without the emoticon. The invention of the very first set of emojis, which were very pixelated, is widely credited to Shigetaka Kurita of the Japanese telecom company NTT Docomo.
Like professor Fahlman's emoticon, Kurita's designs from 1999 were meant to make communication easier. Apart from adding tone to the sentence, they were a way to narrow down words into single character emojis, as the E-mails offered by the system were restricted to 250 characters only. Can you imagine?
The first version of the high-resolution emoji as we know it today was released in 2015 by Unicode under the name Emoji 1.0. You can see the entire collection here. Unicode is "an information technology standard for the consistent encoding, representation, and handling of text," and that includes emojis. The upcoming version is Emoji 14.0, which will include a melting face!
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