In 1982, computer scientist Scott Fahlman became the first person to suggest that typing the characters ":-)" or ":-(" could be used to express a happy or sad face, and therefore display a sense of emotion. On that fateful day the now-ubiquitous emoticon was born, but that shorthand we now know and love (or loathe, depending on your point of view) actually started more than a century earlier, when communicating long distances meant using a lot of dots and dashes.
In the late 19th century, just about the only way to quickly send a message over long distances was by using the telegraph. These then-innovative devices used Morse code to translate text into long and short beeps (dashes and dots), which were received and retranslated back into text on the other side.
Telegraphs sped up world communications in the late 1800s — they were much faster than mailed letters, after all — but they had a few key drawbacks. They were expensive (each letter mattered) and they still took time to transmit. A telegraph operator had to translate the message into Morse code and then sit down and transmit it one letter at a time. On the other end, another operator had to receive, write down and translate the messages.
As you can imagine, this could take a while. Take the simple word "yesterday." In Morse code, that became "-.-- . ... - . .-. -.. .- -.--" Try typing that with any speed or accuracy.
To journalist and telegraph operator Walter P. Phillips, that system was just way too slow. When news broke, he wanted to be able to transmit it as quickly as possible. (This, it should be noted, was a man who once transcribed 2,700 words from Morse code to English in an hour to win a contest.) Since many words and phrases were used all the time, Phillips decided that he could create a system of shorthand for them.
And so what soon became known as the Phillips Code was born in 1879. Phillips created a list of hundreds — later thousands — of common words and phrases and then established abbreviations or codes for them. "Yesterday" became "YA" — or just "-.-- .-" in Morse code. Much simpler and faster, right? Among the Phillips Code's other innovations (which served not just journalists but all message-senders and telegraph operators): the numbers "88" represented the phrase "love and kisses"; the letters "Tw" signified the word "tomorrow"; "Ik" stood in for "instantly killed" (an important phrase for reporters); and "Cb" represented "celebrate." There was even a special set of codes just for baseball: "Bas" meant "by a score of" and "Lob" meant "left on bases."
Most of these aren't used very heavily (if at all) anymore, but at least three of Phillip's phrases have since entered the permanent lexicon. The terms "POTUS" for President of the United States and "SCOTUS" for Supreme Court of the United States both originated with Phillips. Journalists, meanwhile, still use one of Phillips' codes all the time. We end our manuscripts with the number "30" which means "finished."
The Phillips Code didn't disappear with the telegraph. It was revised several times, and the U.S. Navy continued to use it for decades. Even today a few amateur radio enthusiasts use it for their transmissions. And in some way, we all continue to use something like it today, thanks to texting and cellphones.
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