THE BLOG

Guinness World Records Turns 60: "Turning the Heat of Argument Into the Light of Knowledge"

27/08/2015 09:13 BST | Updated 26/08/2016 10:59 BST

The original Guinness Book of Records was born of an argument. In the early part of the 1950s, Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of the Guinness Brewery, was enjoying an afternoon at a shooting party by the River Slaney in County Wexford, south-east Ireland, when he missed a shot at a golden plover flying overhead. "Which is the fastest game bird in Europe?" A variety of answers were returned. The grouse? The teal? The plover? An argument ensued in which no definitive conclusions were reached.

Later that evening, at his host's library in Castlebridge House - his "expensive" library stocked with "expensive encyclopaedias", as Sir Hugh would stress in the recounting of the tale - no book could be found to answer this "most simple of questions". Records were just the kind of thing that started pub and bar arguments, proclaimed Sir Hugh, and it was about time that somebody produced a book of records to settle such arguments.

Sir Hugh was an early pioneer of marketing, ever keen to find innovative ways of publicising his famous stout. Because Guinness did not have its own pubs and so was sold in other brewers' establishments, the sales teams had to work doubly hard to promote it in competition with the house ales and bitters. Could this book of records be one such innovate marketing tool?

Back in London, Sir Hugh raised the idea again with staff at the company's Park Royal brewery. One of these was Chris Chataway, an amateur athlete who would soon become famous as the pacemaker for Roger (now Sir Roger) Bannister's legendary sub-four-minute mile in 1954. Chataway knew who would make the ideal compilers for such a volume of superlative facts: the McWhirter twins, Ross and Norris, themselves keen athletes but with even keener brains for stats and facts. Introductions were made and before long, the twins were engaged to realise Sir Hugh's vision.

From an office in London's Fleet Street, the McWhirters compiled the first ever Guinness Book of Records. The small green hardback, with its single colour photograph (of Mount Everest), was modest in size but densely packed with facts, figures and superlatives. It certainly exceeded Sir Hugh's expectations. Initially, the book was given free to some of the 80,000 or so pubs in the UK, but landlords soon began reporting back that it was being stolen. It was decided that the book should be sold in retail, and despite a faltering start - the UK's largest book chain was unimpressed and put in a first order of just six copies! - it went on to be 1955's Christmas best-seller.

Today, 60 years on, Guinness World Records - as it was renamed in 2001 when it was finally sold by the brewery - continues to top the best-sellers lists. In 1974, it overtook Dr Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care as the biggest selling copyrighted title of all time, and it remains the world's best-selling annual book, with accumulated sales to date of more than 132 million copies.

Much has changed in the world since the 1950s, of course, but the mandate of the book's editors has remained the same: to collate and curate world record achievements, creating a unique vision of the world... one seen through the lens of the superlative. The remit has widened to encompass the thousands of claims we now receive each year via the internet - we get about 1,000 applications and enquiries every week - and we're now much more than a book thanks to our global TV output, digital platforms such as Youtube and our social media channels, records adjudication services, licensing business, and all the other arms you'd expect on a 21st-century brand.

For yes, we are a commercial entity - a fact sometimes overlooked by those claimants who assume that because they're taxpayers, they have a right to be a record holder! But as long as an application satisfies the Records Management Team's criteria, it will be accepted as a Guinness World Records title. (On saying that, less than 10% of applications make it through to our database, and even fewer make it into the book.)

I've had the honour and pleasure of working with Guinness World Records for just over 13 years, the last 10 serving as Editor in Chief - the longest tenure as Editor after Norris McWhirter. Although Norris retired in 1985 (Ross died in 1975, a victim of the IRA), he came back into the fold in 2005 to help us with the 50th anniversary edition, so for me there's some sense of continuity, of a handover.

It's been a remarkable 13 years for me, and I've had the chance to witness record breaking in all its glorious, weird, awe-inspiring forms: I've measured the world's tallest and shortest, weighed the heaviest, and said happy birthday to the oldest; I've hung out with international superstar actors and musicians, dined with royalty and given speeches to governments; and I've handed over certificates to the greatest athletes ever to run, jump, swim or cycle.

But Guinness World Records is more than just a list of celebrated Oscar winners and Olympic medallist - it gives everyone, everywhere, the opportunity to be the best at something. So I've also counted a teenage girl's collection of troll dolls, and counted the piercings of a senior citizen old enough to be my great grandfather; I've watched a Mexican martial artist head-butt pine boards and endured a 24-hour karaoke marathon by a tone-deaf man; and I've weighed onions and cabbages bigger than my own head.

We've never given up on Sir Hugh Beaver's vision of answering those questions that other books don't. But sixty years after the publication of that first Guinness Book of Records, it's clear that the light of knowledge sparked by Sir Hugh's idea has revealed more than just answers - it has illuminated a path to self-discovery, a path down which anyone can tread if they want to get their name in the record books. There, at the end, you'll find our adjudicators with their tape measures and stopwatches, documenting the world. Here's to doing so for another 60 years...

Oh, and if you were wondering what the fastest game bird in Europe was, the question was never answered... until now! It's jointly held by the red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) and the Eider (Somateria mollissima), both of which can probably exceed an air speed of 104 km/h (65 mph).