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U.S. Navy Approves Use Of Lower-Case Letters

Teletype operators relaying U.S. military communications in North Africa during World War II.

A recent directive issued by the U.S. Navy was transmitted in the customary format, using all uppercase letters. Sailors, it said, are:

"AUTHORIZED TO USE STANDARD, MIXED-CASE CHARACTERS IN THE BODY OF NAVY ORGANIZATIONAL MESSAGES."

The message market the end of an era for the Navy (and the Marines). Since the early days of Morse code, which doesn't distinguish between uppercase and lowercase letters, the Navy has been using the all-capital format. Then, teletype machines came along in the the 1850s and they "were made up of only three rows of keys and did not allow for lowercase letters," according to The Military Times, which notes:

"While it might have been necessary to transmit all uppercase messages in the past, it's arguably a hindrance today. A typography study from the 1950s at the University of Minnesota showed reading speeds slowed by about 14 percent when reading all-caps messages over a 20-minute period."

So, it's faster. But, it turns out to be cheaper, too. In an age of cost-cutting and sequestration:

"The Navy gains significant cost efficiencies by eliminating the current Defense Message System (DMS) infrastructure and simply using the existing email infrastructure for final delivery," James McCarty, the naval messaging program manager at U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, says. "By utilizing this methodology we will be able to send messages at 10 percent of the cost and size of current systems."

According to McCarty: "Lowercase messages are here to stay; they provide a more readable format, which can delivered to and shared on any of the current Web 3.0 technologies (chat, portals, wikis, blogs, etc.)."

There's one more reason for the change: Many young sailors were apparently uncomfortable with using all uppercase letters, something that is today often interpreted in email and social media as SHOUTING.

"If an ancillary benefit is that sailors reading message traffic no longer feel they're being screamed at ... that is a good thing too," said a Navy official told The Wall Street Journal.

But McCarty of Fleet Cyber Command acknowledges that change might not prove so easy for everyone.

"Some of the fleets were stuck in their ways and really wanted to keep the all-caps," he said. "But it was inevitable. It had to happen."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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