April 21, 2004

Norris McWhirter, R.I.P.

Posted by Ed

Norris McWhirter, a co-founder of the Guiness Book of World Records, has died at 78. Here's the story of how the book first came about:

The idea for The Guinness Book of Records came during a shooting party in Ireland in 1951. When Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of Arthur Guinness, Son & Co. Ltd., brewer of Guinness stout, and his friends failed to down a flock of golden plovers, they argued about whether it or the red grouse was Europe's fastest bird.

The answer turned out not to be in encyclopedias, but the McWhirters happily supplied it: grouse, 58 to 63 miles an hour, and plover, 50 to 55 miles an hour. Sir Hugh realized the utility of a reference book with his company's name on it, of course to settle similar arguments in the 84,000 pubs of Britain and Ireland. Within six months of publication, it was No. 1 on Britain's best-seller list.

Norris had found an avocation as well as a highly remunerative vocation. A typical vacation was to the Atacama desert in Chile, rainless for 400 years and the driest place in the world, at least according to Guinness. On a trip to Japan in the early 80's, he delighted in meeting what was then thought to be the oldest man in the world, Shigechiyo Izumi, believed to be 116. He lived to be 120 or perhaps only 105, later research suggested.

From reading The New York Times, you get the sense that McWhirter was a likable nut. (Doesn't it sound like fun to visit the Atacama on vacation?) The Telegraph, however, features an obituary that makes him sound insane. McWhirter apparently loved to spend time in court, and tried really hard to have Douglas Hurd (Britain's foreign minister) tried for treason for signing the Treaty of Maastricht. He was also a big fan of investigating the Labour Party:

One of McWhirter's perennial targets was subliminal advertising. In 1970 he demanded that the Director of Public Prosecutions investigate the Labour Party for repeatedly flashing the message "Labour tomorrow" for 0.04 of a second during an election broadcast. In 1985 he unsuccessfully sued the Independent Broadcasting Authority after Spitting Image briefly transmitted his face attached to the body of a naked woman.

As usual, the British obits make the American ones look dull and uninformative. It's always charming to read about harmless right-wing nuts, even if McWhirter did help to give trivia a bad name!

Update: The biologist John Maynard Smith has also died.

Posted by Ed at April 21, 2004 05:55 PM
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