World's Unlikeliest Bestseller

Fifty years ago a brewer's bet spawned a compelling compendium of feats, stunts and trivia

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Record books note that the first man to break the four minute mile was England’s Roger Bannister. The same books list the current world record in the mile as 3:43.13 ( Hicham El Guerrouj, July 7, 1999). Yet no world-class miler has ever faced the hurdle that Ashrita Furman confronted last summer at New York’s JohnF.KennedyAirport.

“It’s a very tough record, even though it’s a silly event,” Furman says on a warm August morning as passengers hurry through the concourse of JFK’s Terminal 4. Furman, a 49-year old health food store manager from Queens, is about to attempt his own world-record mile. The time to beat (29 minutes) seems like a snail’s pace, except for one minor detail. For the entire mile Furman must push an orange . . . with his nose.

At first, Furman, who has set dozens of other world records, including Most Jumping Jacks (27,000 in 1979; 33,000 in 1982) and Longest Time Yodeling (27 hours), had no interest in the event. “But it was broken a couple of times,” he says, “and is now down to 29 minutes. So it’s a challenge.”

The Orange Nose Push does not begin with a starting gun. Furman merely sets an orange—hard and green for better rolling—on the terminal’s tiled floor, kneels over it, and with a great “oomph!” shoves it with his sizable snout. The race is on. The orange rolls 30 feet. Furman jogs after it, crouches again, shoves. Passengers smile warily. Then a guard halts cross traffic. “Stand back!” he warns. “This guy’s doing a Guinness record.” And suddenly everyone understands. Guinness, a name that used to stand only for frothy dark beer, is now known the world over for zany world records.

This year the Guinness book celebrates its 50th anniversary. Since 1955, the company’s exacting scribes have chronicled the earth’s extremes: Tallest Building (Taipei Financial Building, Taiwan). Largest Atoll (Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands). Driest Place (Chile’s Atacama Desert). Heaviest Human (Jon Brower, Minnoch, U.S.A., 1,399 pounds). Most Venomous Mollusk (the blue-ringed octopus). Now it also sanctions some of the world’s silliest stunts. Most Clothespins Clipped on a Face (159). Most Straws Stuffed in the Mouth (258). Largest Group Hug (5,117 people). The list goes on, making each annual Guinness edition a compendium of timeless trivia, genuine feats and shameless publicity stunts. And readers around the world have made it a record setter in its own right. Under bestselling books, the 2005 golden anniversary edition states: “Excluding noncopyright works such as the Bible and the Koran, the world’s all-time best-selling book is Guinness World Records,” with sales exceeding 100 million copies.

Charting the world’s superlatives is painstaking work. Whether it’s the largest galaxy or the lightest subatomic particle, the single clearinghouse for all Guinness records is an eighth-floor suite of offices in an ultramodern glass building on Euston Road in central London. Here nine full-time researchers monitor current records, witness new attempts and handle 60,000 inquiries a year from would-be record setters, more than half from the United States.

Only 15 percent of all new proposed attempts get the Guinness go-ahead. Many are too specific. Most People Crammed into a ’63 Chevy? Sorry, but Guinness accepts carcramming records only for “iconic” cars such as the Volkswagen Beetle. Oldest Pit Bull? Guinness does not categorize pet records by breed. “People often try to claim a record by complicating it,” says Guinness’ Keeper of the Records, Stewart “The Oracle” Newport: “They’ll say they have the record for Longest Standing on the Corner of Such and Such a Street While Playing a Banjo.”

Each workday morning, Guinness researcher Hein Le Roux, a former journalist from South Africa, reviews his most recent inquiries. From Nigeria: “My daughter has traveled so many times with me by air and road since she was six-weeks old. . . . ” Most Traveled Child? Not “Guinnessy,” says the 30-year-old Le Roux. From Texas, a proposal for the largest motorcycle parade. A possibility, but since there is no existing record, he sets a minimum of 10,000 cycles.

All sanctioned attempts must meet Guinness’ rigorous guidelines. Endurance artists attempting the Longest Tuba Marathon or Longest Ironing Marathon are given breaks every hour or every eight hours, depending on the length of their ordeals. Gluttons are instructed to eat the most meatballs, etc., within one-, three- or five-minute periods. Karate experts must break the same-sized brick. And each record attempt requires two witnesses and press coverage. If rules are violated, no record, no matter how amazing, can be certified. Guinness once revoked the achievement of a man who swam 1,864 miles along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers because he wore swim fins.

Even if all criteria are met and an existing record is broken, there is no guarantee that it will make the book; lest the annual edition run to 3,000 pages, only about 10 percent get into print. Guinness editor Craig Glenday favors records that are unique, interesting and appeal to a wide audience. “When we realize there are all sorts of people vying for a record,” he says, “we start to think there must be something in it and put it in the book.”


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus