History Book: The Beginning of Emoticons

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NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, September 19. Good morning! This is The world and all in it of WORLD Radio supported by the listeners. I am Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Next, the world history book. Today we remember a hurricane that hit the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Also, the first documented use of emoticons. But first, a cultural milestone.

This is Paul Butler.

DOCUMENTARY: It’s New York. An island of towering buildings and steep canyons… and it’s one of the cultural capitals of the world…

PAUL BUTLER, JOURNALIST: In 1955, New York City officials approved plans for urban renewal in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

DOCUMENTARY: …Here, a big idea takes shape. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Designed to preserve the past and nurture the future of music, opera, theater and dance…

The first building in the 16-acre facility on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was the permanent home of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the oldest musical institutions in the United States. Architect Max Abramovitz designed the state-of-the-art concert hall, which can accommodate 2,700 people.

It opened on September 23, 1962…

DOCUMENTARY: … The opening of the Philharmonic Hall, in the presence of the First Lady of the United States, was a memorable event. In person – or as viewers of the national TV show – some 25 million people were in attendance that night…[MUSIC]

The concert hall was a cavernous space – over three stories high – with three balconies and boxes around the perimeter. The space featured “acoustic clouds” that could be repositioned for optimal sound processing. Unfortunately, they didn’t really work. The musicians complained that they could not hear each other. It wasn’t much better for the public.

Lincoln Center tried to improve the acoustics, but with little success. Finally, they cleared the room and started again. $10.5 million later, Avery Fisher Hall reopened in 1976, but the reviews weren’t much better.

Over the next 40 years, many acoustic specialists tried to solve the problem. Some have used refraction: trying to bounce sound off different angles – and others have tried absorption: hoping to capture certain frequencies.

Things got so bad that the New York Philharmonic threatened to leave the concert hall for a new home. But Lincoln Center has gone back to the drawing board and 60 years after it first opened, it is set to reopen next month with a new, smaller concert hall in the same space.

PROMO AD: …We have a new home for music, say hello to the new David Geffin Hall and welcome to the New York Phil’s 2022-23 season.

Next, September 19, 1982. A computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University posts a comment on a message board. His name: Scott Fahlman. He and a handful of other teachers were trying to solve a common problem of miscommunication when typing…how to get across when you’re joking. He wondered about a simple smiling face.

FAHLMAN: I’m looking at the keyboard, what can we do? You need eyes. And there is the colon. But unfortunately, this is the wrong way. And then I said, Well, maybe people will turn their heads sideways, you can make a pretty face if you do that. So I posted this now famous message.

This grammatically incorrect original post reads: “I propose that (sic) the following character sequence for joke markers: ‘:’ (colon) ‘-‘ (minus) ‘)’ (closing parenthesis) Read it aside. In fact, it’s probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. To do this, use “:” (colon) “-” (minus) “(” (opening parenthesis).

FAHLMAN: I thought it would amuse the dozen people participating in this crazy discussion, mostly late at night…

But it went much further than that. As more and more universities joined the interconnected network of schools – an online system that predated the Internet – emoticons quickly spread.

FAHLMAN: People started writing books about all the character-based emoticons. I’m really only responsible for the first two. And the others are all descended from mine, but I didn’t invent them.

In an interview last year with Heritage Auctions, Fahlman admitted that his smiling, scowling faces were probably not the first emoticons after all.

FAHLMAN: If people want to fight, I just say okay, in English it was the exclamation mark. It was the first emoticon. It’s just a piece of text that conveys excitement or surprise or an emotional state without saying “Oh, well, I’m surprised” in words…

Last year, the original message board post was auctioned off along with its non-fungible token for $237,500.

And finally today, September 20, 2017. Five years ago this week, Hurricane Maria hit the Lesser Antilles. Audio here from CNN:

NEWSCAST: This is St. Croix, right here in the southern region of the US Virgin Islands. Now when the outer wall met Sainte-Croix, it was still with winds of 175 miles per hour

As the storm headed northwest. Puerto Rico was in his sights. CBS correspondent David Begnaud was at a hotel in San Juan when Maria hit the island as a Category 4 hurricane.

NEWSCAST: The winds are fierce right now, with gusts in excess of 120 miles per hour, cutting through the tops of palm trees and ripping plank and it’s on buildings.

Maria dumped up to 30 inches of rain on the island. Nearly 3,000 people died in the storm and its aftermath. The hurricane decimated the entire power grid on the island. Three months after the hurricane, 45% of Puerto Ricans still had no electricity. Six months after the storm, more than 200,000 people were left without power.

Damage totaled more than $90 billion, making it the third costliest hurricane in the region’s history. This weekend’s Hurricane Fiona was a much less powerful storm, but the island is again in the dark – many locals are hoping that this time power will be restored much sooner.

It’s this week’s WORLD history book. I am Paul Butler.


WORLD Radio transcriptions are created on very short notice. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recording of WORLD Radio programming is the audio recording.

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