SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
July 30, 1979
In the "Guinness Book of World Records," a wondrous compilation of facts and feats, you'll find the fattest cat and wettest violinist
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July 30, 1979

There's Music In The Where?

In the "Guinness Book of World Records," a wondrous compilation of facts and feats, you'll find the fattest cat and wettest violinist

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Smiling tightly, McWhirter adds, "He deserves the world record for ingenuity."

Actually, McWhirter generally enjoys seeing records broken. Apart from the fact that they justify the new editions he publishes each year, he happens to believe that new records are usually tied up with progress. "A record for the worst road crash, that's not progress," he concedes. "But most records are broken because of advances in training, technology or something else. The Apollo program, for example, was the bit-by-bit culmination of an incredible number of man-years of effort, involving 400,000 people and a $25 billion budget. But it also required the existence of the computer, without which it wouldn't have been possible to do third-dimensional navigation fast enough."

Generally speaking, the world is progressing at a rate that McWhirter finds satisfactory. For his book's 25th British edition, he compiled a table revealing that since 1955 the world record for the largest tanker has been broken 19 times, improving—if that's the word—by a total of 1,190%; the deepest ocean descent has been exceeded three times for a 269% improvement; the men's high jump 17 times for a 10% improvement; and so on. One exception is the mile record for thoroughbreds, which has improved just 1%—from Citation's 1:33[2/5] in 1950 to Dr. Fager's current 1:32[1/5]. With disdain, McWhirter says, "Those damned horses—they don't have much more intelligence than a pigeon." No thanks to thoroughbreds, roughly 23% of the contents of the book changes each year, including revisions for such seemingly immutable records as the world's highest mountain; that one was "broken" in 1973 when the Chinese surveyed Mount Everest and officially measured its height, long given as 29,002 feet, as 29,028 feet.

The Guinness book contributes to this boom in world records chiefly by stimulating the activities that constitute Guinnessport. There has always been the kind of behavior that Shakespeare called "midsummer madness," and in bygone years barnstorming pilots, marathon dancers and flagpole sitters were forever claiming world records. They usually documented their feats with newspaper clippings they carried from town to town, and reliable comparisons between rival claims were all but impossible. As a result, the crazes in which they participated were just that—crazes, fading away as quickly as they began.

The Guinness book gives such zany stunts an air of permanence. As McWhirter puts it "By acting as a kind of clearinghouse, the book is a catalyst for a lot of record breaking. Nowadays, a record only has to be printed for somebody else to break it." Lest the book not be catalyst enough, McWhirter further encourages record breaking by issuing certificates to record breakers and selling them neckties (at $6). He also acts as the unofficial czar of Guinnessport. Noting that in order for records to mean anything, "like must be compared with like," he decreed that claimants for the hot dog-eating record must have consumed two-ounce franks. He ruled that the rolling-pin-throw record is open to women only. Shoeshining? He declared that record available only to teams of four teen-agers and, oh, yes, shoes must be "on the hoof." When setting records for the rocking-chair, balancing-on-one-foot and sundry other marathons, the competitors, he ruled, may take one five-minute rest per hour. McWhirter doesn't just compile his compendium of records. He nurtures it, hovers over it like a mother hen.

But treacherous mines dot the landscape and for all of McWhirter's care, missteps occur. For example, the name of the Indiana couple that owns the world's most productive milk cow is mistakenly given in the current U.S. edition as "Becher" instead of "Beecher." Last year a man named Wayne Thompson was credited with having broken the record for distance swimming when he swam 1,864 miles down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Belatedly, it was discovered that Thompson had used fins, a violation of Guinness standards. His name has been excised from the current edition. In grape eating the test once was: How fast can a pound of grapes be consumed? The record dropped steadily from more than two minutes to 34.6 seconds, at which point a claimant reported that within 34.6 seconds, he consumed three pounds, one ounce. Guinness went for the switch and recognized that feat as the record, resulting, apparently, in this ludicrous test: How many grapes can be consumed in 34.6 seconds?

Some students of the Guinness book whisper that its contents are unduly influenced by McWhirter's anti-Soviet sentiments. They note his refusal to confer the world record for longevity on Soviet Georgians who are said to have lived to 150 or more. The book recognizes instead an American, Delina Filkins, who died in 1928 at 113 years 214 days. McWhirter insists that the Soviet claims are unauthenticated, as do other authorities, and he rejects on the same grounds the claim that Charlie Smith of Bartow, Fla. is 137. But McWhirter and the other editors are not immune to outside pressure. Though McWhirter denies it, some have claimed that because of Pentagon protest, a passage blaming a "civilian-U.S. military consortium" for the record plundering of the Reichsbank in the waning days of World War II was deleted from the U.S. edition. The fact that the passage remains in the British edition suggests that McWhirter still considers it accurate.

Any mistakes and distortions that infiltrate Guinness' pages are probably less worrisome than an image problem the book has—namely, that a lot of what others represent to be "Guinness records" are not that at all. One reason is that the book comes out just once a year, trapping many apparent record breakers between editions. In South Bend last year, 1,223 Notre Dame and St. Mary's students gathered on a field, put Jackson Browne's Running on Empty on the record player and played a rollicking two-hour game of musical chairs that eclipsed the listed record of 1,162 participants. Alas, Guinness meanwhile received word of a game played by 1,789 students at East High School in Salt Lake City, and it was this record that appeared in the next edition.

"We thought we were in the book for sure," grieved one Notre Dame student. As happens with many other aspiring record breakers, the Notre Dame-St. Mary's legions were waylaid by the fact that much of Guinnessport is played blind, without full knowledge of what the competition is up to.

Something else that participants in Guinnessport often fail to understand is that the book doesn't recognize just any old record. Publicity seekers and fast-buck operators are particularly careless in this regard. There was the news out of Los Angeles last fall that Klymax the Psychic Wizard intended to get into Guinness by driving north on the Golden State Freeway with silver dollars lodged in his eye sockets, a blindfold covering the silver dollars, a hood over his head and his wrists manacled to the steering wheel. The Wizard announced he would be guided through traffic by "forces of his psychic energy." If Klymax were psychic, he would have divined that Guinness wasn't interested in such a feat.

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