Navy Gives Up ALL-CAPS Messaging, 160 Years After It Began

In tech, old habits die hard.
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Last month, the Navy personnel chief sent out a note on behalf of Fleet CyberCommand with an important message: ALL-CAPS COMMUNIQUES WERE NO LONGER NECESSARY.

Since the middle of the 19th century, Naval messages have been typed in just the upper-case, Navy Times reported, but that era finally, mercifully, came to an end. Though not everybody's happy about it.

"You have a lot of folks that have been around for a long time and are used to uppercase and they just prefer that it stay there because of the standardized look of it," James McCarty, a messaging program manager at Fleet Cyber Command told the Times.

My question was: Why use all-caps text at all? It turns out that it's a vestige of the machines that were once used to create and send messages. The Navy was an early adopter of teletype machines, which used a five-bit character to represent letters. The so-called Baudot code only gave them 32 options (2^5), as you can see here, so each and every character was precious. In those limited circumstances, why would you have two identical libraries of letters differing only in case? Well, you wouldn't, and so they didn't.

Of course, we no longer have those limitations and haven't for decades, but in tech, old habits die hard.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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