Guinness World Records

  • Share
  • Read Later
Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty

World's tallest man, Bao Xishun.

It was a day for mind-bending exploits: some brave, some gluttonous, some merely odd. On November 13, 116 exhibitionists stripped down to their skivvies in London's St. Pancras Station. Some 175 miles away, at a juvenile detention center in Wigan, prisoners and staff took turns running on a treadmill in a bid at setting the fastest time for a collective 100-mile run. In Tokyo, a man dashed 100 meters — on all fours — in under 19 seconds. What did these oddball events have in common? Each was an attempt, on Guinness World Records Day, to enter the tome, which for more than a half century has cataloged feats ranging from the ludicrous to the sublime.

Like many of the records it charts, the Guinness book was the product of a can-do spirit and the need to validate one's pride. In 1951, Sir Hugh Beaver, the managing director of the Guinness Brewery, went on a hunting trip with friends in Ireland. Though he considered himself an excellent shot, Beaver was unable to bag any golden plovers. Wounded, Beaver suggested the bird might be the fastest in Europe. Upon returning from the trip, neither he nor his friends were able to locate a reference book that provided the answer.

The squabble triggered a marketing epiphany. Figuring that pub-goers would be grateful for a record book that settled debates and bar bets, Beaver created one. In 1954 he tapped a pair of brothers for the task: Norris and Ross McWhirter, who ran a London fact-finding agency. The idea was to distribute the book free of charge to bars in a ploy to generate publicity. The first edition, first titled the Guinness Book of World Records, debuted in 1955. It was a hit. Some 50,000 copies were reprinted and sold; demand proved so high that the book went through three more editions over the next 12 months.

Over the ensuing decades, the book became a phenomenon, selling more than 120 million copies in 37 languages. The McWhirters were stringent fact-checkers, often traveling long distances to adjudicate whether potential-record holders met the book's standards. (Ross McWhirter was assassinated in 1975 by the IRA; Norris McWhirter quit editing the book in the mid-1980s). Record holders receive certificates from Guinness, though not all records are selected for inclusion in the book, which receives some 65,000 record claims every year. Rights to the book, which has evolved from an almanac into a glossy, hard-cover item replete with a holographic cover, 3D images and a gatefold, were acquired in February by the Jim Pattison Group, a conglomerate that also owns "Ripley's Believe it or Not!"

If you're having a hard time grasping the importance of becoming the world's fastest kiwi peeler(multiple-record holder Alastair Galpin set that mark this week, stripping and eating the fruit in about 16 seconds) you're not alone. "There can be a snobbishness about record breaking," the book's editor-in-chief, Craig Glenday, told Britain's Sky News. "What may seem pointless to you could be a passion for someone else." For some, record-breaking itself has become a consuming passion. Ashrita Furman, a health-food store manager from Queens, N.Y., has broken more than 200 records. He notched his first in 1979 by doing more than 27,000 jumping jacks, and has since hop-scotched the globe in search of new marks, tacking on records for rope-skipping (on a pogo stick) at Cambodia's Angkor Wat, hula-hooping at Australia's Ayers Rock, and traveling the entire 12-mile length of Paul Revere's Massachusetts ride in forward rolls. "I'm trying to show others that our human capacity is unlimited if we can truly believe in ourselves," Furman wrote.

Read A Brief History of Competitive Eating
Read TIME's Interview with David Blaine