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Kilroy Was Here
This nOde last updated December 17th, 2004 and is permanently morphing...
(3 Ix (Jaguar) / 17 Mac - 94/260 - 126.96.36.199.14)
Kilroy was here! The message appeared mysteriously all over Europe and the Pacific during World War II. The phrase was scrawled on desolate beachheads, notable landmarks and on walls everywhere. The message was believed to have been left by an American, although it was often discovered by the first American troops to enter areas formerly occupied by enemy troops. The phrase irritated German and Japanese troops to no end but delighted (and also bewildered) American forces as it added much needed levity to the brutality of war. It also provided a great deal of mystery about who Kilroy was and how he got to so many areas of the war before anyone else.
At the conclusion of the war, the American Transit Association decided to put a face on the mysterious Mr. Kilroy. After sponsoring a radio contest to draw out the phantom, they declared James J. Kilroy of Halifax, Massachusetts the "Kilroy". Mr. Kilroy explained that as a part of his work, he would write the phrase "Kilroy was here" on the wall of any area he inspected in order to let others know that it had already been inspected. The Association awarded him a 22-ton streetcar which he eventually converted into sleep quarters for some of his children.
Nobody knows where the name of this archetypal American soldier came from, though the phrase turned up on walls and equipment all over the world during World War II. The most famous story links the expression with Mr James J Kilroy, of Halifax, Massachusetts. This is how the New York Times explained matters on 24 December 1946: "During the war he was employed at the Bethlehem Steel Company's Quincy shipyard, inspecting tanks, double bottoms and other parts of warships under construction. To satisfy superiors that he was performing his duties, Mr. Kilroy scribbled in yellow crayon 'Kilroy was here' on inspected work. Soon the phrase began to appear in various unrelated places, and Mr. Kilroy believes the 14,000 shipyard workers who entered the armed services were responsible for its subsequent world-wide use". This has been widely believed and is stated as fact in several books on phrase origins. The problem is that there is evidence that the name, and the phrase, were being used in this way even before the US entered the War at the end of 1941.
Kilroy was the handle used by the most celebrated software cracker in Atari 8-bit lore along with Glenn The 5200 Man
This meme originated during the second world war, when wharf inspector James. J. Kilroy of Quincey, Massachusetts used the slogan "Kilroy was here" to mark products he had tested and approved. The marked products appeared on many battlefields, and the signature that seemed to appear just about everywhere caught the imagination of many soldiers, who began to copy it on just about any writable surface (Funk 1950). Most likely others were intrigued by the slogan that appeared in unlikely places, so they copied it further to spread the myth.
While the meme spread well for several decades,
it eventually went all but extinct in its active form. There seems to be
several reasons for this:
Properties of the Meme
"Kilroy was here" is extremely well suited for the transmission phase, where it is encoded in a graffiti vector.
It is very easy to reproduce, and due to its brevity the copying fidelity can be very high. Its decodability is also high, since after the second world war English became a lingua franca over a large part of the world and acquired a certain status. The meme was spread by English-speaking hosts, and would thus tend to end up in areas where English was understood at least by a part of the population.
The survival of graffiti is highly variable, but by its nature it is semi-permanent and intended to be highly visible, which ensures that more potential hosts notices it.
It is uncertain how well "Kilroy was here" can be abstracted. In its original form, the graffiti vector was an integral part of the meme and crucial to hint at that it should be reproduced. Later variants appeared, such as a cartoon figure and stickers, but they do not appear to have been as fertile, mostly because they were harder to copy.
The meme's intimate connection to its vector, e.g. walls, made it poorly fit to survive in other media. Also, the meme was very sensitive for mutations. It was enough that you changed one of its smallest parts, a letter, to seriously damage the meme.
It is of great help to understand this phrase, that is to know what the English words mean together. The problem of decoding the sentence is quite an easy one, but it is harder to decode what it really means. This is probably one of its strengths. One can find ones own explanation of its meaning. Further more it is small and simple. During a time when the meme is popular, the host also gets multiple chances to try to decode it.
Since the meme is without obvious meaning it is hard to contradict, so there should be no active defence against the meme. The meaninglessness of it can also invoke wandering thoughts about the meme, and actively elaborating is connected with better remembering.
What motivated people to spread the "Kilroy was here" meme? There was never any direct host-to-host contact in the case of this meme. This meant that no host received a direct positive feedback, which is a powerful reproduction booster. And there was no obvious hook accompanying the meme.
This is one of the great meme mysteries. Perhaps that was enough motivation to spread the meme, to become part of the mystery - and also, in the beginning, to share the joke of who this much-talked-about Kilroy character was. Thus, the host created a bond with a community of Kilroy writers, most of which she would never meet, but could still belong to. A feeling of belonging may have served as a hook to motivate the conscious spread of the meme.
The Kilroy writers only way
of confirming that there were others was the indirect feedback, but this
is also the point. The Kilroy writers became invisible, even before each
other, so that the meme seemed to live its own life mysteriously reproducing
on the walls and the writers themselves could feel as privileged members
of a mysterious brotherhood.