Hot on the heels of the world's oldest Lolcat comes the discovery of what may very well be the world's oldest emoticon, contained in a New York Times transcript of an 1862 speech by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.
A team from Proquest, a digital archiving company, found the possible emoticon while creating a student version of historical newspapers for an American history curriculum. Dated from August 7, 1862, an article entitled NEWS FROM WASHINGTON.; A Great War Meeting Held at the Capitol. Important Speech of President Lincoln contained the line, "... there is no precedent for your being here yourselves, (applause and laughter ;) and I offer, in justification of myself and you, that I have found nothing in the Constitution against."
Bryan Benilous of Proquest said the people who discovered the ";)" after the word "laughter" believe it was an emoticon, but not everyone agrees. Carnegie Mellon University Professor Scott E. Fahlman, the man widely credited with popularizing (or even inventing) the modern internet emoticon, is doubtful. "It looks to me like a typo," he said. "I can't imagine an editor putting that in and meaning, 'Ha ha,' trying to emphasize what Lincoln had said. That goes beyond the bounds of editorial comment in a piece of reporting like this."
But the speech predates Linotype machines by roughly 20 years, noted Vincent Golden of the American Antiquity Society, meaning that whoever printed the transcription would have to set the characters piece by piece in a very slow and deliberate process. "The typesetter would have had to pick up the semicolon and set it in the line then pick up the closed bracket and set it next," he said. "My gut feeling is it wasn't a typo."
Other errors in the text seem to reinforce the opinion that it was a simple mistake, but as Jennifer 8. Lee of the New York Times points out, the "overwhelming majority" of audience reaction entries are contained in square brackets, such as "[Applause.]" and "[Applause and Music]," while this one makes uses of parentheses, necessary for a proper smiley. Even Professor Fahlman admitted that it was the "one bit of evidence that says it's more than a typo."
And while some remain unconvinced, Benilous said the confluence of mistakes that were required to form the winking smiley have led him to believe that this is, in fact, the world's oldest emoticon. "Ultimately, it is not just one typo but multiple typos that makes it more than a coincidence (spacing before and after, transposition, parenthesis as opposed to bracket)," he wrote. "Considering this was all done by hand, it seems to be more intentional as opposed to a slip up typing or Microsoft Word autocorrect making the error."
via: Boing Boing