1953: The History of Unicode

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The History of Unicode
2048: "Great news for Maine—we're once again an independent state!!! Thanks, @unicode, for ruling in our favor and sending troops to end New Hampshire's annexation. 🙏🚁🎖️"
Title text: 2048: "Great news for Maine—we're once again an independent state!!! Thanks, @unicode, for ruling in our favor and sending troops to end New Hampshire's annexation. 🙏🚁🎖️"


Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: Created by XEROX - Please change this comment when editing this page. Do NOT delete this tag too soon.
If you can address this issue, please edit the page! Thanks.

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. Unicode was planned as a way of representing the various characters used in the world's languages in a single encoding. Prior to Unicode, each script had its own character set. Different characters would 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 attempts to solve this by providing for a single character encoding for all the worlds 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 wears a beard and may be the character featured in the first and third panels.

New characters have continued to be added, and recently many "emoji" (picture characters) have been added to Unicode. One recently added emoji is the "Lobster emoji". It was approved as part of Unicode 11, for release in 2018.

This is supposedly important for the US State of Maine, which has a large lobster fishing industry. The second panel quotes an actual tweet by a Senator from Maine, Angus King. The tweet is signed using 🐮 cow face emoji (an angus is a bovine) and 👑 Crown emoji, which stands for "king".

The central role of Unicode in setting standards for emoji was not foreseen by the consortium's founders.

The title text imagines that Unicode will gain other unexpected roles in the next 30 years. In particular it acts as an international armed force, capable of intervening in military disputes, such as an annexation of Maine by its neighbour, New Hampshire. The title text ends with three Unicode emoji, "🙏" code point 1F64F "PERSON WITH FOLDED HANDS", "🚁" code point 1F681 "HELICOPTER", and "🎖" code point 1F396 "MILITARY MEDAL".


Ambox notice.png This transcript is incomplete. Please help editing it! Thanks.
[A bearded man holds a document labeled "Unicode".]
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 King‏
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 🐮👑
2/7/18 3:12 PM

[Cueball and the bearded man are looking at a wall with the Unicode standard, labeled "1988", and Senator King's tweet, labeled "2018", posted on it.]

Cueball: Wait, 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.
  • The scenario in the title text isn't 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)👍

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)

Emotional are just evil. It was a sad, sad day when they were first allowed into Uncoded. If you can draw it with a biro, pencil, quill pen, stick of charcoal, one of those brushes that used to be used for Chinese or any other writing stick that's fine. Everyone's script goes in. But emoji are not anyone's script, they are an invention of phone manufacturers, designed for viewing on a phone rather than writing. So they can be coloured in rather than line drawing, leading to allegations of racism because the smiley glyph on the reader's phone is brown, or is not brown, or there is no smiley with a hijab (which could be worked around if we were still allowed to use punctuation and imagination for emoticons) 12:57, 23 February 2020 (UTC)