World's Unlikeliest Bestseller

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

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Only about half of the world records, however, are set by humans. To keep abreast of achievements in science, politics, nature and dozens of other fields, researchers consult university professors as well as experts in various global organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. Whenever possible, Guinness staffers are sent into the field. On one office wall hangs a world map with red dots indicating records witnessed around the world: in China (Largest Golf Club), in India (Longest Dance Party) and in Mexico (Largest Burrito). In all, some 3,000 new records are set in an average year.

As he grunts down the JFK concourse, Ashrita Furman keeps his eyes on the orange. “Almost a minute ahead of schedule!” an assistant calls out as Furman heads for his second lap. He gasps for air. He crouches more slowly, aims more deliberately.

Although he has never attempted a record nosing an orange through an airport before, Furman is hardly a stranger to Guinness staffers, who know him as “Mr. Versatility.” Since 1979, when he did those numbing 27,000 jumping jacks, he has set numerous records. In Paris, he did 8,555 abdominal crunches. In Indonesia, he jumped rope for two hours. He’s carried a nine-pound brick 85 miles, and he’s somersaulted a dozen miles along the path of Paul Revere’s famous ride. Why? “I do it for the challenge, the fun and the spiritual transcendence of pushing myself further,” Furman says. He has set no fewer than 93 official Guinness Word Records, itself a record. “To push yourself,” he reflects, “to be better, to be the best—it’s something instinctive in human beings.”

In the world according to Guinness, superlatives have existed since the big bang—the Universe’s Greatest Explosion. But it took a brewer and a bet to turn them into literature. One day in 1951, Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of the Guinness brewery in London, was hunting game birds at an estate in Ireland when a spirited debate broke out. Which bird was the fastest? Sir Hugh said the plover. Fellow hunters bet on the grouse. But their host’s library failed to yield an answer. When the issue arose again in 1954, Sir Hugh decided there ought to be a book to settle such disputes, especially any that might break out in a pub over a pint of Guinness. He then got in touch with two local sportswriters, twins Norris and Ross McWhirter, young men infatuated with facts. (Their father, an editor at the London Daily Mail, brought home 150 newspapers a week.) As boys, the pair had charted the deepest lakes, the longest tunnels and the tallest buildings. As adults, they had started an agency to supply sports trivia to British newspapers. Accepting Sir Hugh’s challenge, the pair spent several months consulting specialists about the world’s highest, lowest, smallest, etc.—“getting the ‘ests’ from the ‘ists,’ ” as Norris once put it—and proceeded to compile the first Guinness Book of Records in just 16 weeks. Published in August 1955, the volume ranged from the world’s tallest man—the nearly nine-foot-tall Robert Wadlow—to the fastest game bird—neither the grouse nor the plover, as it turned out, but the wood pigeon.

Sir Hugh lost his bet, but his brainchild went right to the top of England’s bestseller list. (The book was published in the United States in 1956.) While those old Guinness books included some truly stomach-churning feats—Most Raw Eggs Eaten in Two Minutes (56)—few involved the risk of life, limb or even dignity. But by 1972, when BBC TV debuted the Guinness show “Record Breakers,” that had changed. “Complete nutters would drop in on us constantly,” Norris McWhirter told Newsweek in 1979. One man brought in an animal he thought was a small horse. “It turned out to be the world’s largest dog,” said McWhirter, “a Great Dane.”

As for the twins, they leveraged their newfound fame, running for Parliament (unsuccessfully) and championing conservative causes (opposing the abuse of trade union power and supporting the rise of Margaret Thatcher). In 1975, Ross McWhirter offered a reward for the apprehension of Irish Republican Army terrorists. Three weeks later, he was gunned down on his London doorstep.Ashaken and grieving Norris vowed to “soldier on.” (The men responsible were arrested two weeks later, sentenced to life and freed after 22 years, as part of a peace agreement for Northern Ireland.)

At first, Norris later allowed, he was “rather chary” of stunts staged just to get in the book. “One has to continually preserve the purity of records,” he said in a 1979 Sports Illustrated interview. “To qualify, something has to be universally competitive, peculiar, or unique.” But gradually he began to include such records as eating a bicycle ground into metal filings and the longest time spent in a bathtub with live rattlesnakes. (This past June, soft-drink maker Snapple’s attempt to install the world’s largest popsicle in Lower Manhattan failed spectacularly when its 17.5-ton, 25-foot-long frozen pink treat began to melt in the summer sun, sending pedestrians scurrying.) Norris worked as the book’s editor, and later as an adviser. He died in April 2004 at age 78.

Today, the book no longer accepts many records it once sanctioned. Lest anyone force-feed a poodle or ride a horse 10,000 miles, extreme pet records have been discontinued. To discourage parents from claiming the Youngest Child to Ride a Motorcycle or Swim the English Channel, an aspirant must be either age 14 with parental consent, or 18 without, to attempt the record for Longest Elvis Singing (25 hours 33 minutes 30 seconds) or any other marathon. Heeding medical advice, the company rejects claims for headstands, handstands, hunger strikes or sleep deprivation. Then there are the attempts that, even for Guinness, are just too inane. “We get claims from people who have worn a pair of socks for the longest, or have had a glass of milk in their fridge for seven years,” says researcher Stuart Claxton.

Staggering through his last lap on the JFK concourse, Ashrita Furman gets a second wind. Now each jerk of his head sends the orange a little farther. Oomph! Past cheering passengers. Oomph! Past lines of airport security guards, grinning, shaking their heads, pondering why a grown man might want to move a spheroid with his schnoz. Furman gives the orange a last nudge, and it zips past the finish. His time—24 minutes 36 seconds! A . . . new . . . world . . . record! Then, after sipping some orange juice, he begins hopping down the concourse to prepare for his next record attempt—hopping a mile.

What began with a brewer’s bet has spawned a worldwide enterprise. Guinness World Records now has museums in tourist meccas from Niagara Falls to Los Angeles. Guinness television programs air in more than 85 countries. Its Web site handles 14 million hits a month, and the latest edition of Guinness World Records has sold 3 million copies in 23 languages. And there’s no letup in sight. “We put records in the book to encourage people,” says Stewart Newport. “I’d like to think that every record we have can be broken.”


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