Computers Get Emotional


This week’s milestones in the history of technology include the birth of emoticons, ICANN, the hearing aid, the punched card tabulating machine, computer-based consumer information services, and the first set of specifications for digital computers.

September 181998

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is formed as a California non-profit corporation to oversee a number of Internet-related tasks previously performed directly on behalf of the U.S. Government.

September 19, 1982

Computer scientist Scott Fahlman proposes for the first time the use of 🙂 and 🙁 to help people on a message board at Carnegie Mellon University to distinguish serious posts from jokes. Fahlman message read:

19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman             🙂

From: Scott E  Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>

I propose that 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


This was the first known use of emoticons (a combination of “emotion” and “icon”) in a digital context, but they have been suggested and used before. For example, four vertical typographical emoticons were published in 1881 by the U.S. satirical magazine Puck, with the stated intention that the publication’s letterpress department thus intended to “lay out … all the cartoonists that ever walked.” And in 1912, Ambrose Bierce proposed “an improvement in punctuation – the snigger point, or note of cachinnation: it is written thus ‿ and presents a smiling mouth. It is to be appended, with the full stop, to every jocular or ironical sentence.”

Today, companies such as Affectiva attempt to include emotions in human-computer interaction by teaching computers to recognize human emotions in facial expressions and in speech.

September 20, 1940

MIT’s Norbert Wiener sends a memo to Vannevar Bush, the head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), proposing five ideas for computer design. Wiener’s biographers, Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, in Dark Hero of the Information Age, call it “one of the first systematic descriptions—and perhaps the first set of technical specifications—for a fully functioning computer in the modern sense.” Bush turned down Wiener’s proposal to build an all-electronic digital computer, believing that scientists and engineers contributing to the war effort should “be employed as far as possible on matters of more immediate promise.”  Conway and Siegelman write: “At the time, neither man knew that before the war’s end every idea in Wiener’s prescient memo would be operational, or actively in development, in one all-inclusive machine.”

Richard S. Rhodes invents the Audiophone, the first hearing aid.

September 23, 1884

Herman Hollerith files an application for a patent for a punched card tabulating machine titled “Art of Compiling Statistics.” The patent will be granted on January 8, 1889 and the tabulating machine will be used to speed up the processing of the 1890 U.S. Census.

The Economist: “In 1886 Herman Hollerith, a statistician, started a business to rent out the tabulating machines he had originally invented for America’s census. Taking a page from train conductors, who then punched holes in tickets to denote passengers’ observable traits (e.g., that they were tall, or female) to prevent fraud, he developed a punch card that held a person’s data and an electric contraption to read it. The technology became the core of IBM’s business when it was incorporated as Computing Tabulating Recording Company (CTR) in 1911 after Hollerith’s firm merged with three others.”

James Cortada in Before the Computer quotes Walter Wilcox of the U.S. Bureau of the Census: “While the returns of the Tenth (1880) Census were being tabulated at Washington, John Shaw Billings [Director of the Division of Vital Statistics] was walking with a companion through the office in which hundreds of clerks were engaged in laboriously transferring data from schedules to record sheets by the slow and heartbreaking method of hand tallying. As they were watching the clerks he said to his companion, ‘there ought to be some mechanical way of doing this job, something on the principle of the Jacquard loom.’” Says Cortada: “It was a singular moment in the history of data processing, one historians could reasonably point to and say that things had changed because of it. It stirred Hollerith’s imagination and ultimately his achievements.”

And: “The U.S. Census of 1890… was a milestone in the history of modern data processing…. No other occurrence so clearly symbolized the start of the age of mechanized data handling…. Before the end of that year, [Hollerith’s] machines had tabulated all 62,622,250 souls in the United States. Use of his machines saved the bureau $5 million over manual methods while cutting sharply the time to do the job. Additional analysis of other variables with his machines meant that the Census of 1890 could be completed within two years, as opposed to nearly ten years taken for fewer data variables and a smaller population in the previous census.”

Kevin Maney in Making the World Work Better: “Hollerith gave computers a way to sense the world through a crude form of touch. Subsequent computing and tabulating machines would improve on the process, packing more information unto cards and developing methods for reading the cards much faster. Yet, amazingly, for six more decades computers would experience the outside world no other way.”

September 24, 1979

Compu-Serve (later CompuServe) launches the first consumer computer information service as MicroNET. The 300-baud service, offered through Radio Shack, offers the first commercial electronic mail (e-mail) service. By the mid-1980s, CompuServe was the largest consumer information service in the world due to the popularity of its online innovations such as moderated forums and online chat.