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Who invented emoji?

Shigetaka Kurita. Emoji. 1998-1999.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Shigetaka Kurita. Emoji. 1998-1999.

Emoji are those little images you can send in text messages to friends and family. Nine-year-old Leila in New Jersey wants to know how they were invented. So in this episode we find out with Jane Solomon, editor atEmojipedia and Paul Galloway of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We learn what the first emoji looked like, way back in the dark ages of the 1990s and we explore how emoji may be a new trend, but communicating through pictures is a very old tradition. Plus, are emoji…art? Give this episode a 👂to find out!

Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript

  • Emoji is a Japanese word. It combines the words for picture and character, so emoji literally means “picture character.” 
  • The plural of emoji is…emoji! (Not emojis.)
  • In the 1990s people used pagers to communicate with people when they weren’t near their home phone. These pagers were nothing like the phones of today. It was basically just a way to find out that someone was trying to reach you. A number would pop up on your pager and you’d call that number back from a landline or pay phone to find out what your friend or your boss wanted to say to you. 
  • People started using numerical codes to send messages like “I love you,” or “thank you” as a way to communicate, rather than just leaving a phone number.
  • So a Japanese company called NTTDOCOMO had the idea to develop emoji, symbols that could be sent via pager. The first one was ♥️. These primitive emoji became very popular.
  • When NTTDOCOMO released its first cell phone a few years later, it included 176 different emoji. Each emoji was designed on a 12 by 12 grid; they were very blocky and pixelated-looking. 
  • Emoji didn’t catch on much at first because you could only send them to friends who had the same kind of phone as you.
  • Google added emoji to Gmail in 2006, but it was when Apple added emoji to the iphone that they took off in popularity. Now, billions of emoji are sent back and forth every day! 
  • When you send an emoji,there’s actually a code behind that symbol that your computer is sending to the other person’s computer. At first there were no rules around this, so if you sent a heart the other person might not get a heart. 
  • The Unicode Consortium, which standardizes electronic communication in written languages across platforms, came up with some rules to fix that problem. 
  • Unicode has now approved more than 3,000 emoji. They add to that number every year and anyone from the public can submit proposals for consideration.
  • The Museum of Modern Art in New York displays the original emoji as art. Emoji are visual communication that people use in their everyday lives. They are a part of our visual culture.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.

But Why is a project of Vermont Public.

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