In the era of cell phones, instant messaging, and social media, it seems like emojis have worked their way into the very fabric of society. They’re used in an increasing number of messages and online posts to convey the feelings of the writer. Often, they’re used as symbols to convey something completely different than what they’re depicting. No matter what you use emoji for, there’s no doubt that they’ve become a permanent addition to modern life. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about emoji.

Early emoji

Up close view of antique typewriter with old-fashioned keys
Credit: welcomia / Shutterstock

Although it might seem like emojis were invented more recently to accompany cell phones and text messaging, they’re actually much older than you think. In fact, the idea behind emoji are nearly 140 years old! Early emoji were called emoticons — emoticons are faces that are made using keyboard characters, while emoji are actual pictures.

The first emoticons were published in an 1881 edition of the American satirical magazine, "Puck.” When they were first released, the emoticons were called typographical art. They weren’t originally intended to be used like a modern emoji, but rather as a joke about creating cartoon emotions using a typewriter. The first emoticons showed joy, melancholy, indifference, and astonishment. Unlike early cell phone emoji, these typographical art pieces were meant to be viewed vertically.

Even Abraham Lincoln was a fan — supposedly

Up close view of Lincoln Memorial statue showing Abraham Lincoln's face
Credit: Patrice Oehen / Shutterstock

Almost 20 years before “Puck” released its typographical art, Abraham Lincoln might have used an emoticon in one of his press releases. In a transcript from his 1862 speech, Lincoln used a pause to signify applause and laughter, which was followed by the traditional winking face emoji — ;). There’s plenty of debate over whether he used the emoticon intentionally or if it was a typo, but since Lincoln isn’t here to clear up the debate himself, you’ll just have to form your own conclusion on the matter.

Person holding smartphone showing various types of smiley faces
Credit: jakkapan / Shutterstock

Depending on what you believe about Lincoln’s transcript, the first emoticons used in text to portray emotion were at Carnegie Mellon college in 1982. Computer scientist Scott Fahlman got tired of miscommunications between department members regarding when they were using humor and when they were being serious on staff message boards. He proposed a simple solution. They would use :-) when making a joke and :-( when they were being serious. The invention spread from department to department, college to college, and business to business until everyone was using emoticons in their text-based communications.

Invention of the modern emoji

Man holding smartphone showing colored smiley faces on screen
Credit: LumineImages / Shutterstock

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, emoticons ruled chatrooms and text message conversations. New emoticons were frequently invented to portray different emotions. In 1999, a Japanese artist named Shigetaka Kurita started designing small 12 x 12 pixel drawings that could be sent as their own characters on cell phones and pagers. The original 176 emojis consisted of weather, traffic, technology, and faces. These new emojis were implemented by Japan’s main mobile carrier, DOCOMO.

With the incredible success of DOCOMO’s emoji, other mobile carriers around the world copied the idea to use in their own networks. The problem was that every carrier used its own coding systems, so emojis sent between different carriers, servers, and computers weren’t always represented the same way.

To send a message across any digital medium, the message is coded, sent, and decoded by the receiver. The Unicode Standard was created to standardize the code used to send messages. This way, every system could communicate with every other system. Originally, emojis weren’t a part of the Unicode Standard. This meant that if you were sending an emoji to your friend using a different carrier or brand of cell phone, it wouldn't necessarily decode the way you intended or appear at all. In 2010, 625 emojis were officially adopted to the Unicode Standard for the first time, which made emoji universally accessible, no matter what technology you were using.

Adopting new emojis

Person's hand holding smartphone showing list of various emoji against white screen
Credit: AngieYeoh / Shutterstock

New emojis are adopted to the Unicode Standard every year. Designs are chosen by the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee. (Yes, it's a real thing.) From the original 625 in 2010, there are now 3,019 different emojis as of January 2020. You can even see what each emoji looks like on different carriers by visiting the Unicode website.

Anyone can create new emojis. You don’t need funding, developers, or to work for a tech company. All you have to do is create a proposal, fill out the submission forms, explain why your emoji is needed, and submit your proposal to the committee via email. Once a proposal reaches the selection committee, it can take months or even years for them to reach a decision. But if they like your design, it’ll be added to the Unicode Standard and sent to phones and computers everywhere.