Wednesday 13 December 2017

Psst . . .The birth of our favourite technological and internet phenomena

Ed Power

Ed Power

Who invented the 'smiley face'? What did the first mobile phone look like? And how did kittens like me become internet sensations? Better ask Ed Power . . .

Where does the 'smiley face' symbol come from? Who coined the phrase 'LOL' (internet speak for 'Laugh Out Loud')? When did people start emailing one another images of kittens spouting amusing/ pithy phrases? If you've ever stopped to think why things are the way they are in the world of technology, wonder no more. Here is our guide to the birth of some of your favourite technological and internet phenomena.


The first smiley face

Each day possibly millions of us sign off instant messages, texts and emails with a smiley face. When did 'Mr Smiley' -- of the yellow face and black eyes -- become a global shorthand? Surreally, the invention of the happy face is credited to Swedish movie-maker Ingmar Bergman, who featured it in his 1948 movie Hamnstad. The definitive 'Mr Smiley', however, was a product of the Mad Men era. In 1963, Harvey Ball, an American commercial artist, designed a smiley face for use on buttons. The image -- bright yellow with dark oval eyes and distinctive mouth creases -- was instantly iconic. Mr Smiley had arrived.

The first emoticon

For centuries writers have been doodling emotive symbols in the margins of their works.

However, the creation of the internet brought a new urgency to the quest to express emotion in text. The problem was that humour didn't always travel well via email and misunderstandings were commonplace.

It was to solve this problem that, in 1982, computer scientist Scott Fahlman posted the following to an online tech forum.

"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

:-( ."

Had he trademarked his creation Fahlman could have made a fortune. He doesn't seem especially haunted by the missed opportunity. "I am trying to create something that will have a greater impact than that stupid thing," he said recently.

The first 'LOL'

Given the dispersed nature of online communication we'll never know for sure who minted the acronym LOL, for 'Laugh Out Loud'. However, a computer technician named Wayne Pearson claims he had a part in its creation.

"LOL was first coined on a BBS called Viewline in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in the early-to-mid-80s," he writes on his home page. "A friend of mine who went by the name of Sprout (and I believe he still does) had said something so funny in the teleconference room that I found myself truly laughing out loud, echoing off the walls of my kitchen. That's when "LOL" was first used.

"We of course had ways of portraying amusement in chat rooms before that ... I don't expect [anyone] to believe this, really. Still, it ought to be written out so there's at least a record of it somewhere on the Internet."

The first email

The first email was sent on October 29, 1969, between computers in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Scientists at the University of California Los Angeles and Stanford communicated via a primitive forerunner of the internet known as ARPANET, using special telephone lines laid down by AT&T.

As it happens, the first email was also the first internet typo. Engineers at UCLA were typing the word 'Log' into the primitive message box when the computer froze so that only the letters 'Lo' reached Stanford.

"So, the first message was 'Lo' as in 'Lo and behold',' UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock later recalled. "We couldn't have a better, more succinct first message."


The mobile phone

The first mobile phone call was made in 1973 by Dr Martin Cooper from Motorola as he strolled through Midtown Manhattan. He was chatting on a prototype of the Motorola DynaTAC, which cost over $100m to develop and would not reach the market for another decade.

"As I walked down the street while talking on the phone, sophisticated New Yorkers gaped at the sight of someone actually moving around while making a phone call," he recalled.

Colloquially referred to as 'the brick', the superlatively clunky DynaTAC cost $4,000 when it was finally went on sale in March 1983. It had enough battery life for a 30- minute conversation and eight hours standby.

The first digital music player

The iPod didn't arrive until 2002, by which time mp3 players had been on the market for nearly five years.

The player credited as being first to launch was the Rio Diamond, which entered production in 1998. Retailing at $200 the distinctly chunky Rio could hold an hour of music. Based in California, the Diamond corporation remains in business and specialises in making sound and video cards for PCs.

The first e-reader

Always slightly ahead on the technology curve, it is no surprise that the earliest e-readers should surface in Japan. In 1992, Sony introduced its 'Data Discman', a reading device that accessed material via compact disk.

But the grey LCD screen was difficult to read and, with a basic model costing upwards of $750, its popularity did not spread beyond Japan and was discontinued in 2000.

It would be another six years before Sony re-entered the e-book market, with its Reader device. It remains locked in a struggle with the Amazon Kindle.

The first laptop

If by laptop we mean a 'clamshell' style computer with its own screen, the title 'world's first' probably goes to an Australian device, The Magnum. Developed at the University of New South Wales in 1982, it featured a built-in monitor and keyboard.

Alas, Australia is a long way from the beating heart of the tech industry and the innovative device went unnoticed and was soon eclipsed by companies such as Hewlett Packard and Dell. It can't have helped that, abroad, the Magnum was styled the 'Kookaburra'.

Irish Independent

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