So, here’s a question for you: What world-renowned book began as an argument among hunting friends over the fastest game bird in Great Britain? Yes, indeed, it was the Guinness Book of World Records. And here’s how it happened.
On November 10, 1951, a group of friends were out hunting for birds in County Wexford, in the southeastern corner of Ireland. The shooting was good, but the hunters had missed on several shots at the Golden Plover, a common gamebird throughout Europe and western Asia. It is relatively small, weighing about half a pound, with brown plumage on the back and sides and a white streak running from the top of its head, down the neck and across the breast and belly.
That evening, some of the party claimed that they had missed their shots because the Golden Plover flew so fast, the fastest gamebird in Europe, they claimed. An argument began, with others claiming that, no, the Grouse was the fastest bird. But with no authoritative source available to consult, the argument remained unresolved. One member of the hunting party thought that a reference book ought to be available to answer such questions and that it might be popular in Great Britain’s 80,000+ pubs.
That farsighted individual was Sir Hugh Beaver, the managing director of the Guinness Breweries. Beaver was a visionary with a history of making things happen. A civil engineer by training, he led the assembly of the famous Mulberry Harbor as part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He also worked actively on air pollution issues in England, chairing the Committee on Air Pollution that led to the first comprehensive British Clean Air Act of 1956.
A few years after the Golden Plover-Grouse argument, in 1954, Beaver decided it was time to act on the idea for a fact book. To produce a book of world records, he engaged a pair of twin geniuses, Norris and Ross McWhirter, who ran a company to provide authoritative data to the London newspaper industry. They set to work gathering the data, by sending hundreds of letters “to astrophysicists, physiologists, zoologists, meteorologists, vulcanologists, botanists, ornithologists, microlepidopterists, concologists, virologists, economists, numismatists, criminologists, etimologists, incunabulists, campinologists, gemmologists, metrologists, pryphologists, toxicologists, spelæologists, malocologists, herpetologists, hagiologists, horologists, mycologists, and gerontologists.” Working flat-out, they compiled all the information that flowed in and completed the first 198-page version by the fall of 1955.
The first edition of The Guinness Book of Records was an immediate success, selling out 100,000 copies by Christmas. After 63 years of publication, it is the world’s best-selling copyrighted book. The first edition contained about 4,000 entries; the current database of records contains over 47,000.
Interestingly, for 35 years, the book failed to answer the question that started it all—which is the fastest gamebird in Europe? The Guinness answer appeared in the 36th edition, published in 1989: “Britain’s fastest game bird is the Red Grouse (Lagopus l. scoticus) which, in still air, has recorded burst speeds up to … 58-63 mph over very short distances. Air speeds up to … 70 mph have been claimed for the Golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) when flushed, but it is extremely doubtful whether this rapid-flying bird can exceed … 50-55 mph – even in an emergency.” Not very conclusive, eh? Let’s discuss it over another pint!
Book-of-records. Guinness Record Book Collecting—The History of the Book. Available at: http://guinness.book-of-records.info/history.html. Accessed November 9, 2017.
Claxton, Stuart. 2011. The Very First Guinness Book of World Records. The Blog, Huffington Post, 09/11/2011. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/stuart-claxton/the-very-first-guinness-b_b_956684.html. Accessed November 9, 2017.
Guinness Storehouse. Archive Fact Sheet: Guinness Book of Records. Available at: https://www.guinness-storehouse.com/Content/pdf/archive-factsheets/advertising/guinness-book-of-records.pdf. Accessed November 9, 2017.
Guinness World Records. Our history. Available at: http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/about-us/our-history/. Accessed November 9, 2017.