History Book: The beginning of emoticons

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday September 19th. Good morning! That is The world and everything in it from listener-based WORLD Radio. I’m 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: This is New York. A small island full of towering buildings and steep gorges… and it’s one of the cultural capitals of the world…

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

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

The first building on the 40-acre compound on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was a permanent home for the New York Philharmonic – one of the oldest musical institutions in the United States. The architect Max Abramovitz designed the state-of-the-art concert hall with space for 2,700 people.

It opened on September 23, 1962…

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

The concert hall was a cavernous space – more than three stories high – with three balconies and box seats all around. The room featured “acoustic clouds” that could be repositioned for optimal sound treatment. Unfortunately they didn’t really work. Musicians complained that they could not hear themselves. It wasn’t much better for the audience.

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Lincoln Center tried to improve the acoustics, but without much success. Finally, they gutted the hall and started over. $10.5 million later, Avery Fisher Hall reopened in 1976 — but reviews weren’t much better.

Over the next 40 years, many acoustic specialists tried to fix the problem. Some used refraction: trying to bounce the sound off at different angles — and others tried absorption: hoping to capture specific frequencies.

It got so bad that the New York Philharmonic threatened to leave the concert hall for a new home. But Lincoln Center went back to the drawing board, and 60 years after it first opened, it’s set to reopen next month with a new, smaller concert hall on the same site.

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

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 professors were trying to solve a common communication problem in typing…as one makes clear when joking. He marveled at a simple smiley face.

FAHLMAN: I’m looking at the keyboard, what can we do? you need eyes. And there’s the colon. But unfortunately it is the wrong way. And then I said, well, maybe we can get people to turn their heads to the side, you can make a pretty nice face. So I posted this now famous message.

This original ungrammatically incorrect message reads: “I suggest that (sic) use the following joke marker string: “:” (colon) “-” (minus) “)” (closing bracket). Read it sideways. In fact, given current trends, it’s probably more economical to flag things that are NOT jokes. Use “:” (colon) “-” (minus) “(” (open bracket).

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FAHLMAN: I figured that would amuse the dozen people participating in this crazy, mostly late-night discussion…

But it went much further. As more universities joined the connected network of schools – an online system that predated the internet – emoticons spread quickly.

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 my own, but I didn’t invent them.

In an interview with Heritage Auctions last year, Fahlman admitted that his smileys and frowns were probably not the first emoticons after all.

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

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

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

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

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

NEWS: Winds are fierce at the moment, with gusts in excess of 120 mph cutting through palm tree tops and ripping the board away on buildings.

Maria dropped up to 30 inches of rain on the island. Almost 3,000 people died in the storm and its aftermath. The hurricane decimated the island’s entire power grid. Three months after the hurricane, 45 percent of Puerto Ricans were still without power. 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 once again in the dark – and many residents are hoping power will be restored much more quickly this time.

This is this week’s world history book. I’m Paul Butler.

WORLD radio transcripts are being prepared in a hurry. 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 record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio recording.

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