What has sold over 145 million copies worldwide, spawned websites, tv shows, museums and games and represented feats of human achievement from the pinnacle of athleticism to the downright weird? Yes, it’s the Guinness Book of World Records, now known just as Guinness World Records and it’s come a long way since its inception over 65 years ago.
Back in the 1950s, if you needed to know something to, for example, prove to your friends that you were right and they were wrong, you couldn’t just do a two second internet search and wave your phone triumphantly in their faces. If the information wasn’t readily available in any existing reference books that you happened to have easy access to, the argument would rumble on and probably fester for the remainder of your relationship. This was the predicament Sir Hugh Beaver found himself in when, presumably having missed a shot at a shooting party he was attending, the question was raised over what was Europe’s fastest game bird, the red grouse or the golden plover. With no concrete answer to be found, Sir Hugh spotted a gap in the market for a book containing such facts and figures and was eventually put in touch with fact-finding statistician twins, Norris and Ross McWhirter. Incidentally, if there was a record for the random pairing of unintentionally comedic names, Hugh Beaver and Norris McWhirter must surely be pretty close to the top.
The twins worked hard on compiling their records and facts and in 1954 the prototype was printed and distributed free as “The Guinness Book of Records”.
If you’re wondering where the “Guinness” part comes into it and whether it’s the same Guinness as the famous Irish drink, well you’d be right. Sir Hugh Beaver was the Managing Director of the Guinness Brewery at the time and saw the tie-in potential for settling pub arguments with a handy book of facts. While the book arm has since been sold to different companies a few times, the Guinness name has been retained.
Following the free 1954 edition, in the following year, 1955, the Guinness Book of Records was officially published for the first time and was a huge hit, selling 187,000 copies in its first year. By 1964, the book and subsequent editions had sold over 1 million copies. The McWhirter twins compiled and updated the book every year until 1975 when, after becoming a target because of his anti-Irish views, Ross McWhirter was assassinated by the IRA. Norris McWhirter continued as the editor for the Guinness Book of Records until 1986 and stayed on as a consultant until his retirement in 1996 at the age of 71.
The book has continued as an annual juggernaut of facts and figures and has a few spin-off editions, such as “Wild Things” and “Amazing Animals” dealing with, you’ve guessed it, animal facts and even a Gamer’s Edition covering everything you can think of from the world of videogames. According to the website, the annual books contain 80% new and updated information in every edition which I suppose means that 20% of the records are more enduring or just popular or important enough to feature every year.
Now, over 65 years after the initial argument about birds, Guinness World Records has become the recognised global authority covering and celebrating human and animal achievement at its best and brightest.
How to Be a Record Breaker
If you want a place in the Guinness World Records book, there is a process to go through. Whether you’re the first, the youngest, the oldest, the fastest or even the slowest, there’s a category for everybody but you must adhere to the rules. According to the Guinness World Records website, each record attempt must fulfill all of the following criteria:
It must be measurable, breakable, standardisable, verifiable, based on one variable and thought of as being the best in the world.
You can search on their website to apply to break an existing record or suggest a new one. A standard application can take several months to be approved or rejected or you can pay to have it fastracked. There are even bespoke (and expensive) packages where you can get suggestions for records to attempt with your organization or company. While you don’t have to have an official Guinness World Records judge at your attempt, you can hire them to help cut down on admin and add some buzz around your event. If you are making a record attempt without an official judge present, you need to make sure you provide comprehensive evidence to Guinness World Records including, but not limited to, a detailed cover letter, independent witness statements and photographic and video proof.
About 50,000 people a year apply to be a record breaker but only a small percentage achieve their goal. This could be because of a problem somewhere in the application process, a lack of evidence at the end or just failure in the attempt itself. 6000 records were approved in 2020, though, showing that at least some people were being productive during a global pandemic.
Guinness World Records does not pay any money to winners or cover expenses accrued so think about that before buying brand name over store brand beans for your next baked bean bath record attempt. What you do get is a classy certificate and unassailable bragging rights – until someone else comes along and takes your crown.
Even if you do now officially have a Guinness World Record, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll see your name in print; the book only publishes about 4000 records each year out of over 58,000 that it has in its databases. You’ve got a better chance at appearing on their website, though, as it features about 15,000 records at a time and regularly updates its content.
World’s Best Records
Norris McWhirter’s fascination with statistics and records was already well established before Guinness came calling. In fact, it was McWhirter who witnessed and officially announced that Roger Bannister was the first person to break the four minute mile in Oxford in 1954. While this record has since been broken many times, being the first to do something is always a good way to get your name into the record book.
If your name happens to be Ashrita Furman, you’re going to be in the record book a lot. That’s because Furman is known as the man with the most Guinness world records. Since breaking the record for the most jumping jacks in the 1980 edition (27,000 in 6 hours, 45 minutes), Furman has gone on to set more than 600 records. As well as physically taxing achievements such as the record for fastest 10k sack race (1 hour, 22 minutes and 2 seconds), he’s also thought up a whole bunch of incredibly niche stuff such as ”the most number of balloons inflated by the nose in 1 minute” (It’s 9 if you care to try and beat that one) and “most paper aircraft caught by mouth in 1 minute” – 17.
If that seems a bit tame for your tastes, maybe you could try beating Wang Lei’s 2020 record for “Most apples held in own mouth and cut by a chainsaw in one minute”. He managed to do it 28 times and kept his face intact in the process. Or how about “Most watermelons chopped on the stomach in one minute” currently held by Suresh P and Master Prabhakar Reddy P at 64 sword-chopped watermelons.
For the more sedentary amongst us, there are plenty of opportunities to be a record breaker without breaking a sweat. Rocco Mercurio currently holds the world record for “the most mugs held in one hand” at a whopping 25 and in 2014, Girlguiding North West England organised the “largest sleepover or pajama party” with over 2000 participants.
You could also get cracking on that other mainstay of the Guinness World Records books – the largest collections section. If you have the money, the space and a good idea, you could join the illustrious ranks of Largest Collection of Ingested Objects – (2,374), Largest Collection of Ear Trumpets (359) or Largest Collection of Fruit Stickers (34,500).
There’s even a record for the Largest Collection of Guinness World Records Memorabilia which is currently held by Martyn Tovey with 2,164 unique items. Contained within that is also another world record for the Largest Collection of Guinness World Record Annuals at 353.
If even that is too strenuous, you can always buy a branded cap or tshirt from the store and hope people will assume you’ve done something extraordinary.
Do be aware, however, that Guinness World Records has tightened up and even removed categories due to concerns for animal or human welfare. Because it’s easily open for abuse by over competitive pet owners, applications are no longer accepted for things like lightest or heaviest pet, for example. Also closed are categories which include speeding on public roads, speed-drinking alcohol or doing things which are not within existing Guinness World Records time or distance markers.
Also, due to their subjective nature, no applications are accepted for record attempts relating to artwork, poetry or beauty.
So if you have the time and the inclination, it seems more than possible that a Guinness World Record is within your grasp.
By the way, according to the Guinness World Record’s website, Europe’s fastest game bird is recorded as the golden plover which maybe explains why Beaver failed to hit it.