How Did the Guinness Book of World Records Start?

It might seem strange that a beer company should come to represent the global standard of reference for world record-breaking competition. But the history of the Guinness Book of World Records inception sheds light on this peculiarity—the world’s best-selling hardcover almanac of superlatives began as a tool to settle drunken arguments.

The Unusual Origin Story of the Guinness World Records Book

In the early 1950’s Sir Hugh Beaver, then-Managing Director of the Guinness Brewery, went to a shooting party, where he got into an argument over which was Europe’s fastest game bird. Unable to settle the question through any encyclopedia (it’s the golden plover, by the way), Beaver was struck by a stroke of marketing genius—what if there was one book of all time records and trivia that could settle any pub argument?

He hired twin brothers Norris and Ross McWhirter to compile the facts and figures for the new compendium. In 1955, the first edition debuted as free promotional material for pubs in the United Kingdom, but proved so popular that the company began selling it that year. It quickly became a best-seller, and the first United States edition would be released the following year.  The McWhirter twins assumed the role of the first Guinness World Record adjudicators, traveling the world to witness record attempts and verify new records.

The Evolution of the World’s Best-Selling Hardcover Almanac of Superlatives

True to its initial inspiration, earlier versions of the book focus more on natural facts. Over time, however, the book transformed into the more familiar status as a hall of fame for human achievement, as well as a catalog of the weird and wacky curiosities of the human body—such as Lee Remond, the world record holder for longest fingernails ever.

The following decades saw consistently high sales for the book, cementing its status as the unchallenged authority for world record verification. The Guinness Book of World Records would be purchased by the company behind Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! in 2008, and went on to break a record of its own in 2015, when it awarded itself the title of “Best-Selling Copyrighted Book of All Time” with over 120 million copies sold since its humble beginnings.

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