Kilroy Was Here: Searching for the Origin of a Meme

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Throughout WWII, the same doodle with the same words started appearing everywhere on Allied bases. “Kilroy Was Here” accompanied by a sketch of a bald man peering over a wall. This tag was so ubiquitous, you couldn’t be around the British or American military without seeing it scrawled into some equipment. In this episode, we explore the origins of the early meme and try to find out the identity of “Kilroy.” Then we play the quiz with Comedian Glen Tickle!

Bamber bridge

There’s a legend about Adolf Hitler. It says that at one point during World War II, Hitler demanded that his subordinates seek and find out anything they could about a master spy named Kilroy. Joseph Stalin also had asked his staff about the identity of the man with this name. The reason was that they were finding graffiti in English scrawled onto surfaces that read “Kilroy was here.” They were finding it written on walls inside their buildings and the same phrase scratched onto bomb casings that were dropped by the Americans. We don’t know if these stories are true, but they reflect the ubiquity of this interesting phrase and accompanying image. 

The image is one you may have seen. It depicts a bald man with his hands and nose hanging over a straight line, making it look like he’s peeking over a ledge. And the words “Kilroy was here” are always famously included with the image. 

Of course Kilroy wasn’t really the code-name for an American spy, leaving his mark inside enemy lines. It was popular graffiti of the time – one of the first viral memes. But where did it come from? 

Well it seems like the drawing predates the Kilroy meme. In the UK, the character was commonly known as “Chad,” or “Mr. Chad” and would appear with the phrase “Wot, no sugar?” – there’s never been a more British thing – and it was apparently a reference to shortages and rationing during war times. Some claim the Chad figure was based on the appearance of the Greek letter omega. I can sort of see a resemblance, but it’s a stretch – more on that in a minute. According to Eric Partridge’s book, “A dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English,” Chad was also known as “Private Snoops” by the British Army and “The Watcher” by the Royal Navy. Where did the nickname “Chad” come from? One theory is that the cartoon was first drawn somewhere around 1938 by George Edward Chatterton. His nickname was “Chat” and the theory is that somehow evolved into Chad as the name for this famous doodle.

Another theory about the doodle is that it’s supposed to represent the Greek letter omega. Omega is used by electricians to represent electrical resistance. And then there’s the theory that Chad started as an electrical schematic – a circuit diagram of an RLC circuit. RLC stands for (R) resistor, (L) inductor, (C) capacitor and if you look at this diagram, it sort of actually looks like the Chad figure when they’re arranged to look like a band stop filter. What’s a band stop filter? I don’t know and it’s not important to the story. But when you look at this circuit diagram, it totally looks like a dude peeking over a wall with his hands and nose hanging over. The accompanying lore with this theory is that it originated with the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. But I also found that this may have originated with the book V by Thomas Pinchon. That book wasn’t written until 20 years after the war, so it doesn’t seem like a likely explanation for the drawing’s origin. 

The accompanying words “Wot, no sugar?” were a popular saying as a reaction to shortages. The word sugar would be replaced by different things. According to Etymologist Gary Martin, there’s evidence of this saying being used in an American jewelry ad in a 1932 Newspaper from Connecticut. The spelling is usually seen as “wot” for the word “what,” which is just the Americans sort of poking fun at British pronunciations. 

So the phrase was common, the cartoon was easy to draw and thus became common – think of it as the “cool S” symbol we all used to draw in our notebooks when we were kids. It was an easy doodle for people to draw mixed with a common saying. So how did it become Kilroy?

So that started as an American thing: “Kilroy was here.” But writing “[blank] was here” predates all of that. There’s evidence that a similar saying, “Foo was here,” was popular during the first World War in Australia. It would show up written on the sides of rail cars in Army camps – so that’s a couple decades earlier than the American’s Kilroy. Some sources say that the Australia and New Zealand Air Force used Foo to represent fictional gremlins in the equipment. Like when something got messed up, they’d say “Foo was here.” Foo is also an acronym for Forward Observation Officer, so that’s yet another theory. Wherever the phrase came from, it was picked up and spread throughout the region as a popular piece of graffiti. During World War I, you’d see “Foo was here” scrawled on lots of equipment.

So who was Kilroy? And how did he get associated with Chad? We’ll look into that after a quick break. 

So the words “Kilroy was here” started appearing in America prior to being married to the cartoon and prior to the second world war. But who was Kilroy?

In 1946, the American Transit Association put together a contest to find out exactly that. They offered to give a full-size streetcar to anyone who could prove that they were the Kilroy referenced in the popular tag. As many as 46 different people claimed that they were, in fact, the original Kilroy. 

One of them was Frank Kilroy, a 21 year old radar mechanic with the 15th Air Force. He was hospitalized in 1943 and his story is that while he was hospitalized, the boys back in his unit had written graffiti like “Kilroy is coming,” “Kilroy will be here soon,” and then “Kilroy was here.”

And there were dozens of other claims just like this. Anyone with the name Kilroy claimed they were the origin of the phenomenon. Even more so if they were in the Armed Forces. But one man won the contest and to this day, is credited with inventing the phrase. 

It all goes back to the shipyards of Quincy, Massachusetts. When ships were being built in the Fore River Shipyard, James J. Kilroy, a resident of Halifax, Massachusetts was working as an inspector of rivets. He had previously been a politician, working on Boston City Council and in Massachusetts State Legislature. And inspecting rivets on a ship was a tedious job, although not as tedious as installing the rivets. The men who inspected the thousands upon thousands of rivets would make chalk marks to keep track of sections they had already checked. And in turn, the riveters would get paid for that section. Yes – they were paid by the rivet. So it was in their best interest to try to remove those chalk marks so they would get paid twice for the same section of rivets. Well James J. Kilroy had gotten wise to this scheme and set out to make it more difficult to erase. He used a more indelible wax to mark the sections and rather than a simple mark, he would write the phrase “Kilroy was here.” Soon, all of these Navy ships were littered with the phrase. And as they sailed away full of American Service Members, the men took note of the phrase. 

And for having been able to prove that he was the original Kilroy, James was awarded the trolley car. He ended up putting it in his yard for his kids to use as a clubhouse. 

So the conglomeration of the phrase with the drawing of Mr. Chad is nothing but a beautiful merging of cultures. The British and the Americans coming together and sharing pieces of their culture with each other. Of course it wasn’t a purposeful thing – it just happened that each group had their own popular piece of graffiti and the two got melded together. 

There’s a fun story about Stalin. Apparently there was an outhouse that was built for the exclusive use of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the Potsdam conference. This was the conference in Germany where terms were negotiated to end the war in 1945.  The story goes that the first person to use this outhouse was Josef Stalin, the Soviet Leader, who emerged and immediately asked his aide, “Who is Kilroy?

The story has never been proven as true, but it’s a fun way to show just how ubiquitous this phrase and doodle had become. It made its way all over the world. Back in America, you couldn’t find a restroom stall without the saying scratched into the wood. Bar owners would tell you they regularly had to erase or paint over the saying.

It was immortalized in television and films, like the film of the same name “Kilroy was Here,” a 1947 movie about a man who happened to have the misfortune of sharing the name with the meme. And in the 1970 film “Kelly’s Heroes,” where the final scene shows the graffiti painted on a wall. It was used to show that Americans and their allies had been to a place. When you didn’t have something else to write above the urinal, you would write “Kilroy was Here.” No one knew why. No one knew about the rivet inspector, or the British Cartoonist, or the Australian legend of “Foo.”

So now you know the origin of one of the world’s first viral memes. The Internet Says it’s True.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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