By Cassady Rosenblum
Natural Light Beer achieved a Guinness World Record for the world’s longest slip-n-slide, stretching 2,021 feet down a hill at Canaan Valley Resort. While many readers will recall Guinness World Records from the popular children’s book–and its harrowing images such as world’s longest fingernails–they may be surprised to learn that Guinness Book of World Records first began as an argument between hunting buddies. In 1951, according to the Guinness World Records website, Sir Hugh Beaver was out bird hunting in the Irish countryside when he failed to shoot a single golden plover, a type of shore bird now known to fly at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Put out, Beaver remarked that the golden plover must be the fastest game bird in Europe. His hunting buddies, as good hunting buddies do, ribbed him mercilessly, arguing he was a sore loser.
Beaver’s failed expedition, however, would wind up bagging him a bigger idea: Why wasn’t there a book where you could look up these kinds of questions, and find the definitive answers? Beaver, who was then the Managing Director of the Guinness Brewery, decided he would make the book he desired. In 1954, he recruited his twin brothers, Norris and Ross McWhirter, who made a living supplying statistics to newspapers. With their help, Beaver figured he would place the book free of charge in Irish pubs as a marketing gimmick for Guinness Beer. Instead, the first Guinness Book of World Records, which debuted in 1955, became a sensation. According to Time Magazine, Beaver and his brothers sold 50,000 copies in the first year alone, and would go on to sell 120 million copies in 37 languages over the coming decades. But with the arrival of the Internet, book sales plummeted, forcing Guinness to shift its business model.
According to a 2017 story by Planet Money of NPR, Guinness realized it could make money from the record-attempters themselves. Companies (or countries) with cash to burn can pay Guinness fees ranging from $12,000 to $500,000 to receive help finding records to break, and advice on how to go about breaking them. This is an appealing option for companies such as Natural Light Beer, which paid Guinness World Records an undisclosed fee for help in breaking the world’s longest slip-n-slide record last week, or countries like the previous record-holder, Jordan, who wanted to prove they are a family-friendly destination.
Mike Marcotte, the official Guinness World Records adjudicator at the slip-n-slide event last week, said individuals are still permitted and encouraged to submit their own world record claims, and indeed many from West Virginia have. In 2020, a fitness instructor from Morgantown named Rupa Hulet became the reigning world champion for most pull-ups done by a woman in a minute when she completed 34. In 2011, Zachary George of Elkins won his fifth Guinness World Record in 2011 when he clipped 51 clothespins on his hand in one minute.
Nevertheless, not everyone likes the new business model, including British comedian John Oliver of Last Week Tonight. According to Slate, Oliver says the practice of selling Guinness World Records allows corrupt countries with serious human rights abuses, such as Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia, to launder their reputations. Nevertheless, Guinness World Records continues to persist, perhaps because it appeals to our most basic desires: winning, and knowing who’s right.