The original smiley, or emoticon, invented in 1982 by Scott Fahlman but subsequently lost, has been retrieved through the efforts of Microsoft researcher Mike Jones and facilities staff at Carnegie Mellon University. And isn't it a blessing to find Microsoft Research staff keeping themselves profitably occupied like this, when they could be posing a threat to world freedom instead?
Jones describes the process of unearthing the smiley here. Fahlman hadn't kept a copy of his original post, and had assumed it had been lost. But he was able to help narrow down the likely dates, and extensive CMU trawls through old backup tapes finally nailed the posting down to 19th September 1982, so we're just in time for the 20th anniversary next Thursday.. It has now been restored in all its glory here, and the full thread from whence it came can be viewed here.
Note that Fahlman's post didn't come out of the blue - the CMU people had been working hard on a mechanism for signifying jokes for some time, and among the rejected proposals were & and #. Nor did :-) win immediate and universal acceptance. On the 20th a poster identified only as Not Sharon Burks mounted a fight-back on behalf of the "gandalf vax" and its favoured emoticon, \__/. But ultimately, Fahlman triumphed, and the research team could go back to discussing Star Trek. ®