1953: The History of Unicode

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The History of Unicode
2048: "Great news for Maineโ€”we're once again an independent state!!! Thanks, @unicode, for ruling in our favor and sending troops to end New Hampshire's annexation. ๐Ÿ™๐Ÿš๐ŸŽ–๏ธ"
Title text: 2048: "Great news for Maineโ€”we're once again an independent state!!! Thanks, @unicode, for ruling in our favor and sending troops to end New Hampshire's annexation. ๐Ÿ™๐Ÿš๐ŸŽ–๏ธ"


An encoding of a character set is a mapping from characters to numbers. For example, the letter "A" might be represented by the value 65. A problem was that each script had its own character set. Different characters could be represented by the same value. Some languages, such as Japanese, had several inconsistent character encodings, so before people could send text, they would have to have agreed which character set to use. Unicode was planned as a way of solving this by providing for a single character encoding for all the various characters used in the world's languages.

Unicode is run by a consortium of major technology companies and stakeholders. The founders of Unicode include Joe Becker, who worked for Xerox in the 1980s. He has a beard and may be the character featured in the first and third panels.

New characters have continued to be added to Unicode, and recently many "emoji" (picture characters) have been added. Emoji were originally added to be compatible with text message encodings in Japan, but after devices in other countries started supporting them as part of Unicode, they caught on worldwide. Now emoji characters are added for their own sake, not just for compatibility.

One recently added emoji is the "Lobster emoji". It was approved as part of Unicode 11, for release in 2018.

This comic shows the creator of Unicode talking about how it would change the way we thought about managing text, which could help with incompatible binary text encoding. This seems to have derailed over the next 30 years, as shown in a real tweet from the junior Senator from Maine, Angus King. In the tweet, Sen. King writes that he is excited that the system is getting a new lobster emoji, showing that now the Unicode system is used for more frivolous reasons. He even signs using two emoji to form his name. There is a cattle breed called Angus cattle, so the cow emoji, ๐Ÿฎ, stands for "Angus", and the crown emoji, ๐Ÿ‘‘, of course represents "King". Thus Angus King becomes ๐Ÿฎ๐Ÿ‘‘. This is thus not part of the xkcd joke; it just uses the real tweet for comic relief. The tweet was released February 7th, only two days before this comic; the second comment on the tweet posted this comic and asked which came first, but of course the tweet did. A user comments that Senator King should see it as a badge of honor (๐ŸŽ–) to have his tweet included in an xkcd strip...

The title text imagines that Unicode will gain other unexpected roles in the next 30 years. In particular it acts as an armed force, capable of intervening in military disputes, such as an annexation of Maine by its neighbor, New Hampshire. The title text ends with three Unicode emoji: "๐Ÿ™" code point 1F64F "PERSON WITH FOLDED HANDS", "๐Ÿš" code point 1F681 "HELICOPTER", and "๐ŸŽ–" code point 1F396 "MILITARY MEDAL", suggesting that they are thanking them for their effort in the war, sending helicopters and soldiers to aid them against New Hampshire.


[A bearded man holds a document labeled "Unicode". Most likely he represents Joe Becker.]
Bearded man: My "Unicode" standard should help reduce problems caused by incompatible binary text encodings.
[A tweet from Twitter is shown. To the left of Senator Angus King's name is his avatar (a face with a mustache) and to the right is the blue checkmark used by Twitter to signify a verified user.]
Senator Angus Kingโ€
Great news for Maine - we're getting a lobster emoji!!! Thanks to @unicode for recognizing the impact of this critical crustacean, in Maine and across the country.
Yours truly,
Senator ๐Ÿฎ๐Ÿ‘‘
2/7/18 3:12 PM
[Cueball and the bearded man (the latter now grey-haired) are looking at a wall with the Unicode standard, labeled "1988", and Senator King's tweet, labeled "2018", posted on it.]
Cueball: What... what happened in those thirty years?
Bearded man: Things got a little weird, okay?


  • Initial version of the comic had "1998" in panel 3 instead of "1988" as shown in panel 1. This was fixed later.
  • At one time the scenario in the title text wouldn't have been quite as far-fetched as it sounds. Maine and New Hampshire were for many years involved in border disputes, primarily over fishing rights and whether Seavey Island, located in the middle of the river that forms the border of the two states, was part of Maine or New Hampshire. The latter issue was not settled until 2002. Neither dispute ever quite rose to the level of a full-on shooting war but they got surprisingly close.

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Is it me or my laptop isn't rendering the Unicode in the title text well? My laptop uses UTF-8. Boeing-787lover 16:55, 9 February 2018 (UTC)

Don't know about you, but for me the comic is currently just a massively-blown-up picture of the top left corner of the one displayed on this page. 18:06, 9 February 2018 (UTC)
I'm experiencing the same top-left-corner zoom in chrome and firefox on a mac. 18:11, 9 February 2018 (UTC)Sean P. O. MacCath-Moran
Same here. Safari 11.0.3 on Mac. 18:13, 9 February 2018 (UTC)
It would appear that the image itself is a massively zoomed-in version. vor0nwe (talk) 18:17, 9 February 2018 (UTC)
If anyone is wondering, this is how the comic looked like for a while: http://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/File:history_of_unicode_zoom.png
It is fixed now, and so are the years in the last panel. -Asdf (talk) 18:57, 9 February 2018 (UTC)
Not just you, in the title text I only see the first two emojis, I had to read the explanation to discover what the other two are, LOL! Then again, I'm on an iPad 1, I've come to expect such things. :) NiceGuy1 (talk) 06:40, 13 February 2018 (UTC)

Strictly speaking Unicode [nowadays] is not an encoding; UTF-8 and UTF-16 are (possible encodings of Unicode) --JakubNarebski (talk) 20:28, 9 February 2018 (UTC)

Might just be me, but I think the last comment from Cueball might also refer to the senator thanking the Unicode committee for recognizing the impact Lobsters have on Maine? Unicode was just supposed to make it easier to talk across different devices, and not have a role in legitimizing certain industries? 22:43, 9 February 2018 (UTC)

Another issue that Unicode solves, perhaps more important than having single common encoding for characters (which we don't have; UTF-8 is the most popular, but UTF-16/USC-2 is also used), is the ability to write multilingual texts. --JakubNarebski (talk) 09:57, 10 February 2018 (UTC)

Recent revision lost the explanation of twitter post signature --JakubNarebski (talk) 10:21, 11 February 2018 (UTC)

I'm taking issue with the statement "Neither dispute ever quite rose to the level of a full-on shooting war but they got surprisingly close." I read the full text at the provided link, and they got close to a shooting incident between fishermen on one boat and law enforcement officers. That was the full extent of any potential shooting, and that is nowhere close to a full-on shooting war as I see it! I think this point could be a little less melodramatic. If nobody raises an objection or modifies the text accordingly, I will eventually clean it up myself. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 14:16, 11 February 2018 (UTC)๐Ÿ‘

I'd still consider that surprisingly close, in context. -- 20:30, 12 February 2018 (UTC)
Agreed, I didn't read the article, but even from your summation I'd say "surprisingly close" is effective description. NiceGuy1 (talk) 06:40, 13 February 2018 (UTC)
Ok, I'll let it stand then. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 12:29, 13 February 2018 (UTC)

"Prior to Unicode, Unicode attempts to Unicode [...]" dafuq? I would change it by myself but I don't even understand what that's supposed to express. Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 09:18, 12 February 2018 (UTC)

Perhaps the conflict referred to in the title text was conducted entirely by emoji, and the Unicode Consortium sent several new 'Troop' emojis to intervene. 10:40, 12 February 2018 (UTC)