Frightened villagers “killed” the first hydrogen balloon, launched in Paris by Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers Anne-Jean and Nicolas-Louis on Aug. 27, 1783. Allen Andrews, in Back to the Drawing Board: The Evolution of Flying Machines, quotes a contemporary account:
It is presumed that it was carried to a height of more than 20,000 feet, when it burst by the reaction of the Inflammable Gas upon the Atmospheric Air. It fell at three quarters past five near Gonesse, ten miles [actually, 15 miles] from the Field of Mars. The affrightened inhabitants ran together, appalled by the Hellish stench of sulphur, and two monks having assured them it was the skin of a Monstrous Animal, they attacked it with stones, pitchforks and flails. The Curate of the village was obliged to attend in order to sprinkle it with holy water and remove the fears of his astonished parishioners. At last they tied to the tail of a horse the first Instrument that was ever made for an Experiment in Natural Philosophy, and trained it across the field more than 6000 feet.
Perhaps forewarned, the first man to undertake a balloon flight in North America carried a pass from George Washington.
adj. haughty, arrogant, pretentious, or showy
adj. barbarous, uncivilized
v. to regard as insignificant or of no account
In 1937 photographer Jimmy Sime caught sight of five boys outside Lord’s Cricket Ground during the annual Eton vs. Harrow match. Peter Wagner and Tim Dyson were Harrow students awaiting a ride to the Wagners’ country home in Surrey, and George Salmon, Jack Catlin, and George Young were working-class boys who had spent the morning at the dentist and hoped to earn some money running errands at Lord’s.
Sime’s photo filled three columns of the News Chronicle‘s front page on July 10 under the headline “Every Picture Tells a Story.” It has been reprinted widely since as an illustration of the British class system, sometimes with the title Toffs and Toughs.
In 1998, journalist Geoffrey Levy tracked down Young and Salmon, then in their 70s, and asked whether they’d resented the Harrow boys. “Nah,” Young said. “We had our lives, they had theirs.” Salmon said, “In those days you accepted what you were and what they were, and got on with it.”
It seems a bit arrogant that those of us in the United States refer to ourselves as “Americans” when more than half a billion other people live in the Americas. But what should we call ourselves instead?
“You have properly observed that we can no longer be called Anglo-Americans,” noted Thomas Jefferson in a letter after the Revolution. “That appellation describes now only the inhabitants of Nova Scotia, Canada, &c. I had applied that of Federo Americans to our citizens, as it would not be so decent for us to assume to ourselves the flattering appellation of free Americans.”
What’s a better term? In 1992 Columbia University etymologist Allen Walker Read compiled a list of suggestions that have been made over the years:
- United Statesards
- United Statesese
- United Statesians
- United Statesmen
- United Statesers
- U.S. men
- United Stateans
Perhaps we’re all counterfeit: In early usage “Americans” applied not to European colonists but to the native Indians whose territory they were invading. John Locke wrote in 1671: “So if you should ask an American how old his son is, i.e., what the length of duration was between his birth and this moment, he would … tell you his son was 30 or 40 moons old as it happened.”
(Allen Walker Read, “Derivative Forms From the Name United States,” paper read at the 31st annual Names Institute sponsored by The American Name Society, Baruch College of The City University of New York, May 2, 1992.)
Editorial guidelines from Spicy Detective magazine, 1935:
- In describing breasts of a female character, avoid anatomical descriptions.
- If it is necessary for the story to have the girl give herself to a man, or be taken by him, do not go too carefully into details. …
- Whenever possible, avoid complete nudity of the female characters. You can have a girl strip to her underwear or transparent negligee or nightgown, or the thin torn shred of her garments, but while the girl is alive and in contact with a man, we do not want complete nudity.
- A nude female corpse is allowable, of course.
- Also a girl undressing in the privacy of her own room, but when men are in the action try to keep at least a shred of something on the girls.
- Do not have men in underwear in scenes with women, and no nude men at all.
“The idea is to have a very strong sex element in these stories without anything that might be intrepreted as being vulgar or obscene.”
(From Nicholas Parsons, The Book of Literary Lists, 1987.)
“I adore war. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I’ve never been so well or so happy. No one grumbles at one for being dirty.” So wrote professional soldier and poet Julian Grenfell in October 1914, shortly after arriving at the western front.
The unparalleled horrors of the First World War seemed to call forth untapped reserves of mannerly British sang-froid, a “stoical reticence” that artillery officer P.H. Pilditch traced to training in the public schools: “Everything is toned down. … Nothing is ‘horrible.’ That word is never used in public. Things are ‘darned unpleasant,’ ‘Rather nasty,’ or, if very bad, simply ‘damnable.'”
General James Jack reported, “On my usual afternoon walk today a shrapnel shell scattered a shower of bullets around me in an unpleasant manner.” When Private R.W. Mitchell moved to trenches in Hebuterne in June 1916, he complained of “strafing and a certain dampness.”
This unreality reached its peak in the Field Service Post Card, which soldiers were required to complete to reassure next of kin after a particularly dangerous engagement:
I am quite well.
I have been admitted into hospital (sick) (wounded) (and am going on well) (and hope to be discharged soon).
I am being sent down to base.
I have received your (letter dated ____) (telegram dated ____) (parcel dated ____)
Letter follows at first opportunity.
I have received no letter from you (lately) (for a long time).
A soldier would cross out any text that did not apply, perhaps leaving only the line “I am quite well.” “The implicit optimism of the post card is worth noting,” writes Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), “the way it offers no provision for transmitting news like ‘I have lost my left leg’ or ‘I have been admitted into hospital wounded and do not expect to recover.’ Because it provided no way of saying ‘I am going up the line again’ its users have to improvise. Wilfred Owen had an understanding with his mother that when he used a double line to cross out ‘I am being sent down to the base,’ he meant he was at the front again.”
Only three countries have not officially adopted the metric system: Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States.
In October 2013 Myanmar announced that it plans to make the switch.
Satirists must make difficult masters. Jonathan Swift spent 28 years amassing grievances about his servants and published them in a sarcastic list in 1731:
- To save time and trouble, cut your apples and onions with the same knife, for well-bred gentry love the taste of an onion in everything they eat.
- Never send up a leg of a fowl at supper, while there is a cat or a dog in the house that can be accused of running away with it: but, if there happen to be neither, you must lay it upon the rats, or a strange greyhound.
- When you are chidden for a fault, as you go out of the room, and down stairs, mutter loud enough to be plainly heard; this will make him believe you are innocent.
- When any servant comes home drunk, and cannot appear, you must all join in telling your master, that he is gone to bed very sick.
- In order to learn the secrets of other families, tell your brethren those of your master’s; thus you will grow a favourite both at home and abroad, and regarded as a person of importance.
- When you have done a fault, be always pert and insolent, and behave yourself as if you were the injured person; this will immediately put your master or lady off their mettle.
- Never submit to stir a finger in any business but that for which you were particularly hired. For example, if the groom be drunk or absent, and the butler be ordered to shut the stable door, the answer is ready, An please your Honour, I don’t understand Horses.
- Leave a pail of dirty water with the mop in it, a coal-box, a bottle, a broom, a chamber pot, and such other unsightly things, either in a blind entry or upon the darkest part of the back stairs, that they may not be seen, and if people break their shins by trampling on them, it is their own fault.
Samuel Johnson remarked that Swift must have taken copious notes, “for such a number of particulars could never have been assembled by the power of recollection.”
n. a severing of peaceful relations
n. a recital of wrongs before declaring war
One characteristic incident of his fearlessness occurred when friends of Mahler recommended the Berlin Royal Opera to engage him just before he had signed to go to Hamburg. The intendant at the German capital, who was said to be anti-Semitic, is reported to have replied, ‘We cannot engage Mahler here, as we do not like the shape of his nose.’ When in 1897 Vienna offered Mahler the directorial and managerial control of its opera, Berlin suddenly awoke to the importance of the artist who was leaving Germany, and made him a proposition financially better than the one from Vienna. Mahler at once signed the contract to go to the banks of the Danube and telegraphed Berlin: ‘Regret that I cannot accept. My nose still the same shape.’
— Musical Courier, quoted in Current Literature, July 1911
See Late Acceptance.
Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics took China by storm — phrases such as the strong are victorious and the weak perish resonated in the national consciousness and “spread like a prairie fire, setting ablaze the hearts and blood of many young people,” noted philosopher Hu Shih.
People even adopted Darwin’s ideas as names. “The once famous General Chen Chiung-ming called himself ‘Ching-tsun’ or ‘Struggling for Existence.’ Two of my schoolmates bore the names ‘Natural Selection Yang’ and ‘Struggle for Existence Sun.’
“Even my own name bears witness to the great vogue of evolutionism in China. I remember distinctly the morning when I asked my second brother to suggest a literary name for me. After only a moment’s reflection, he said, ‘How about the word shih [fitness] in the phrase “Survival of the Fittest”?’ I agreed and, first using it as a nom de plume, finally adopted it in 1910 as my name.”
(Hu Shih, Living Philosophies, 1931.)
v. to disturb by interrupting
In late 1908 Douglas Mawson, Alastair Mackay, and Edgeworth David left Ernest Shackleton’s party in hopes of discovering the location of the South Magnetic Pole. On Dec. 11, while Mackay left the camp to reconnoiter, David prepared to sketch the mountains and Mawson retired into the tent to work on his camera equipment:
I was busy changing photographic plates in the only place where it could be done — inside the sleeping bag. … Soon after I had done up the bag, having got safely inside, I heard a voice from outside — a gentle voice — calling:
‘Hullo!’ said I.
‘Oh, you’re in the bag changing plates, are you?’
There was a silence for some time. Then I heard the Professor calling in a louder tone:
I answered again. Well the Professor heard by the sound I was still in the bag, so he said:
‘Oh, still changing plates, are you?’
More silence for some time. After a minute, in a rather loud and anxious tone:
I thought there was something up, but could not tell what he was after. I was getting rather tired of it and called out:
‘Hullo. What is it? What can I do?’
‘Well, Mawson, I am in a rather dangerous position. I am really hanging on by my fingers to the edge of a crevasse, and I don’t think I can hold on much longer. I shall have to trouble you to come out and assist me.’
I came out rather quicker than I can say. There was the Professor, just his head showing and hanging on to the edge of a dangerous crevasse.
David later explained, “I had scarcely gone more than six yards from the tent, when the lid of a crevasse suddenly collapsed under me. I only saved myself from going right down by throwing my arms out and staying myself on the snow lid on either side.”
Mawson helped him out, and David began his sketching. The party reached the pole in January.
In 1983, Max Bazerman and William Samuelson asked M.B.A. students in 12 Boston University microeconomics classes to estimate the value of each of four commodities: jars containing 800 pennies, 160 nickels, 200 large paper clips each worth 4 cents, and 400 small paper clips each worth 2 cents. Thus each jar had a value of $8.00, though the students didn’t know this. They asked the students to bid on the value of each commodity. The student whose bid came closest to the true value in each auction would win a $2 prize.
The average estimated value of all the commodities was $5.13, $2.87 less than the true value. But the average winning bid was $10.01, resulting in an average loss to the winner of $2.01. The average winning bid produced a loss in more than half of all the auctions.
This is the “winner’s curse”: The winner of an auction tends to be one of those who form the highest estimate of an item’s value — and hence one of those most at risk of overpaying.
“If an individual assumes that his or her bid will win the auction, this piece of data should indicate that the bidder has probably overestimated the value of the commodity in comparison to other competitors,” write Bazerman and Samuelson. “When the correct inference is drawn, the bidder should revise the estimate of the true value of the item downward and lower the bid accordingly. By failing to take this inference into account, the winning bidder risks paying too much for the ‘prize.'”
(Max Bazerman and William Samuelson, “I Won the Auction But Don’t Want the Prize,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 27:4 [December 1983], 618-634.)
Louisiana State University law professor Christine Alice Corcos points out that Ghostbusters, apart from being an entertaining comedy, also offers “a thoughtful introduction to environmental law and policy, suitable for discussion in a law school class.” For example, the team has no license for the containment unit in the basement of their firehouse:
The LLRWA sets forth extremely specific terms under which sites must be proposed, evaluated, and chosen. It also mandates environmental impact statements, which the Ghostbusters could not have prepared since they did not notify any agency of their activities. Additionally, the LLRWA guidelines require that the waste being stored, and the disposal site, be structurally stable. Apparently the psychic waste being stored does not meet Class B or C waste guidelines, nor does it seem to have the minimum stability required by any other class. As we see on Peck’s second visit to the facility, it is neither liquid nor solid, and if released will likely ignite or emit toxic vapors. Furthermore, storage is likely to be advisable not for 100 years, as with Class A and B wastes, but forever. However, under RCRA, the government need only show that the waste is hazardous within the statutory definition. The EPA might prefer to exercise this option for this particular case.
On the other hand, it’s EPA lawyer Walter Peck who orders the unit to be shut down, over the team’s protests. “Peck’s unilateral action may leave the EPA liable for suit by New York City residents under the Federal Tort Claims Act,” Corcos writes. “A successful suit would have to fall outside one of two exceptions to the federal government’s waiver of immunity. The discretionary function exception, exempts the acts and omissions of a government employee ‘exercising due care in the execution of a statute or regulation,’ or specific intentional torts, such as assault, battery and false imprisonment. Peck’s behavior in forcing the release of the psychic waste arguably falls within the battery exception, as would Venkman’s claim of malicious prosecution.”
(Christine Alice Corcos, “‘Who Ya Gonna C(S)ite?': Ghostbusters and the Environmental Regulation Debate,” Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law (1997): 231-272.) (Thanks, Mark.)
“Boarding-House Geometry,” by Stephen Leacock:
Definitions and Axioms
All boarding-houses are the same boarding-house.
Boarders in the same boardinghouse and on the same flat are equal to one another.
A single room is that which has no parts and no magnitude.
The landlady of a boarding-house is a parallelogram — that is, an oblong angular figure, which cannot be described, but which is equal to anything.
A wrangle is the disinclination of two boarders to each other that meet together but are not in the same line.
All the other rooms being taken, a single room is said to be a double room.
Postulates and Propositions
A pie may be produced any number of times.
The landlady can be reduced to her lowest terms by a series of propositions.
A bee line may be made from any boarding-house to any other boarding-house.
The clothes of a boarding-house bed, though produced ever so far both ways, will not meet.
Any two meals at a boarding-house are together less than two square meals.
If from the opposite ends of a boarding-house a line be drawn passing through all the rooms in turn, then the stovepipe which warms the boarders will lie within that line.
On the same bill and on the same side of it there should not be two charges for the same thing.
If there be two boarders on the same flat, and the amount of side of the one be equal to the amount of side of the other, each to each, and the wrangle between one boarder and the landlady be equal to the wrangle between the landlady and the other, then shall the weekly bills of the two boarders be equal also, each to each.
For if not, let one bill be the greater. Then the other bill is less than it might have been — which is absurd.
From his Literary Lapses, 1918. See Special Projects.
In 1945, the Arkansas legislature passed “An Act to Authorize and Permit Cities of First and Second Class and Incorporated Towns to Vacate Public Streets and Alleys in the Public Interest.” That seems boring enough. But § 8 read as follows:
“All laws and parts of laws, and particularly Act 311 of the Acts of 1941, are hereby repealed.”
With the stroke of a pen they had repealed every law in Arkansas. The state supreme court cleared its throat and ventured an improvement:
“No doubt the legislature meant to repeal all laws in conflict with that act, and, by error of the author or the typist, left out the usual words ‘in conflict herewith,’ which we will imply by necessary construction.”
(Act 17 of 1945 [repl. 1980; now Ark. Stat. § 14-301-301], cited in Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner, Reading Law, 2012.)
I should have wished also to have referred to some of the serio-comic duels, such as that fought by the famous critic Sainte-Beuve against M. Dubois, of the Globe newspaper. When the adversaries arrived on the ground it was raining heavily. Sainte-Beuve had brought an umbrella and some sixteenth-century flint-lock pistols. When the signal to fire was about to be given, Sainte-Beuve still kept his umbrella open. The seconds protested, but Sainte-Beuve resisted, saying, ‘I am quite ready to be killed, but I do not wish to catch cold.’
— Theodore Child, “Duelling in Paris,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, March 1887
Founded in 1938 by Owen C. Cash and Rupert I. Hall, the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America boasts 23,000 members. Its more manageable name is the Barbershop Harmony Society.
The Guild of Former Pipe Organ Pumpers was created in 1927 by “Grand Diapason” Chet Shafer of Detroit, after meeting Sen. James Couzens (R-Mich.) and discovering that both had pumped organs in their youth. “He and Couzens commented on the fact that even in the smallest villages nowadays the organ is usually pumped by electricity, and therefore the profession of organ pumper is dying out.”
Founded in 1936 by public relations man Sidney Ascher, the Society for the Prevention of Disparaging Remarks About Brooklyn held weekly meetings over a local radio station. “Brooklyn has more men in the armed forces than any of 39 states,” Ascher insisted. “Ask anybody about their courage.”
When Crayola announced in 1990 that it would be retiring eight crayon colors, one dismayed fan sent them fax saying he’d be forming a group called RUMPS — the Raw Umber and Maize Preservation Society.
According to Guinness World Records, the labor union with the longest name was the International Association of Marble, Slate and Stone Polishers, Rubbers and Sawyers, Tile and Marble Setters’ Helpers and Marble Mosaic and Terrazzo Workers’ Helpers, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.
Established as a joke in 1916 by lumber baron George W. Dulany, the Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George once boasted 33,000 members. At the time, the porters of U.S. sleeping cars were traditionally called George regardless of their given names.
And according to H. Allen Smith’s book People Named Smith, in 1942 University of Minnesota graduate student Glenn E. Smith founded the National Society to Discourage Use of the Name Smith for Purposes of Hypothetical Illustration. He was irritated that his professor’s lectures always centered on characters named James Smith. The society’s hundreds of members pledged themselves to confront offenders with a card that read “When you think of Smith, say John Doe!”
Between 1868 and 1870, Mark Twain traveled more than 40,000 miles by rail, dutifully buying accident insurance all the while, and never had a mishap. Each morning he bought an insurance ticket, thinking that fate must soon catch up with him, and each day he escaped without a scratch. Eventually “my suspicions were aroused,” he wrote, “and I began to hunt around for somebody that had won in this lottery. I found plenty of people who had invested, but not an individual that had ever had an accident or made a cent. I stopped buying accident tickets and went to ciphering. The result was astounding. The peril lay not in traveling, but in staying at home.”
He calculated that American railways moved more than 2 million people each day, sustaining 650 million journeys per year, but that only 1 million Americans died each year of all causes: “Out of this million ten or twelve thousand are stabbed, shot, drowned, hanged, poisoned, or meet a similarly violent death in some other popular way, such as perishing by kerosene lamp and hoop-skirt conflagrations, getting buried in coal mines, falling off housetops, breaking through church or lecture-room floors, taking patent medicines, or committing suicide in other forms. The Erie railroad kills from 23 to 46; the other 845 railroads kill an average of one-third of a man each; and the rest of that million, amounting in the aggregate to the appalling figure of nine hundred and eighty-seven thousand six hundred and thirty-one corpses, die naturally in their beds!”
The answer, then, is to avoid beds. “My advice to all people is, Don’t stay at home any more than you can help; but when you have got to stay at home a while, buy a package of those insurance tickets and sit up nights. You cannot be too cautious.”
(Mark Twain, “The Danger of Lying in Bed,” The Galaxy, February 1871.)
Founded in the 1880s by Manhattan rationalists, the 13 Club held a regular dinner on the 13th of each month, seating 13 members at each table deliberately to laugh at superstition.
“I have given some attention to popular superstitions, and let me tell you that argument is powerless against them,” founding member Daniel Wolff told journalist Philip Hubert in 1890. “They have a grip upon the imagination that nothing but ridicule will lessen.” As an example he cited the tradition that the mirrors must be removed from a room in which a corpse is lying. “Make the experiment yourself, and the next time you are called upon to sit up with a corpse, notice how uncomfortable a mirror will make you feel,” he said. “Of course it is a matter of the imagination, but you can’t reason against it. All the ingrained terrors of six thousand years are in your bones. You walk across the floor and catch a glimpse of yourself in the glass. You start; was there not a spectral something behind you? So you cover it up.”
As honorary members the club recruited 16 U.S. senators, 12 governors, and six Army generals. Robert Green Ingersoll ended one 1886 toast by declaring, “We have had enough mediocrity, enough policy, enough superstition, enough prejudice, enough provincialism, and the time has come for the American citizen to say: ‘Hereafter I will be represented by men who are worthy, not only of the great Republic, but of the Nineteenth Century.'”
But Oscar Wilde, for one, turned them down. “I love superstitions,” he wrote. “They are the colour element of thought and imagination. They are the opponents of common sense. Common sense is the enemy of romance. The aim of your society seems to be dreadful. Leave us some unreality. Don’t make us too offensively sane.”
It was well remarked by an intelligent old farmer, ‘I would rather be taxed for the education of the boy, than the ignorance of the man. For one or the other I am compelled to pay.’
— Southern Cultivator, January 1848
v. to deceive in the manner of a prostitute
BOW-STREET — Eliza Merchant, a black-eyed girl, of that class of women known as ‘unfortunates,’ was charged by Garnet Comerford, a sailor, with robbing him of four sovereigns, several dollars and half-crowns, and his shoes. The tar stated that on Wednesday evening, about eight o’clock he left the house of his Captain, the honourable Mr. Duncan, at the west end of town, intending to pay a visit to a sister, whom he had not seen since he left England in the Seringapatem. On the way, he met as tight a looking frigate as ever he clapt his eyes on. She hoisted friendly colours; he hove to; and they agreed together to steer into port. They sailed up the Strand, when she said she would tow him to a snug berth, and he should share her hammock for the night. He consented; and when he awoke in the morning he found that she had cut and run. His rigging had been thrown all about the room, his four sovereigns and silver, and shoes were carried off.
— The Morning Chronicle, Dec. 8, 1828
n. one’s own handwriting or autograph; a style or character of writing
What is this? It’s the signature of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. When Lew was nominated for the post in January 2013, it threatened to appear on all U.S. paper currency for the duration of his tenure.
Barack Obama said, “Jack assures me that he is going to work to make at least one letter legible in order not to debase our currency, should he be confirmed as secretary of the Treasury.” He did so — the current signature is below.
Lew’s predecessor, Timothy Geithner, had a similarly incomprehensible signature and produced a more legible version for the currency. “I took handwriting in the third grade in New Delhi, India,” he said, “so I probably did not get the best instruction on handwriting.”
Auguste Bartholdi patented the Statue of Liberty. In 1879, seven years before its dedication in New York Harbor, the French sculptor filed a one-page abstract describing his “design for a sculpture”:
The statue is that of a female figure standing erect upon a pedestal or block, the body being thrown slightly over to the left, so as to gravitate upon the left leg, the whole figure being thus in equilibrium, and symmetrically arranged with respect to a perpendicular line or axis passing through the head and left foot. The right leg, with its lower limb thrown back, is bent, resting upon the bent toe, thus giving grace to the general attitude of the figure. The body is clothed in the classical drapery, being a stola, or mantle gathered in upon the left shoulder and thrown over the skirt or tunic or under-garment, which drops in voluminous folds upon the feet. The right arm is thrown up and stretched out, with a flamboyant torch grasped in the hand. The flame of the torch is thus held high up above the figure. The arm is nude; the drapery of the sleeve is dropping down upon the shoulder in voluminous folds. In the left arm, which is falling against the body, is held a tablet, upon which is inscribed ‘4th July, 1776.’ This tablet is made to rest against the side of the body, above the hip, and so as to occupy an inclined position with relation thereto, exhibiting the inscription. The left hand clasps the tablet so as to bring the four fingers onto the face thereof. The head, with its classical, yet severe and calm, features, is surmounted by a crown or diadem, from which radiate divergingly seven rays, tapering from the crown, and representing a halo. The feet are bare and sandal-strapped.
Bartholdi also received copyright 9939G for his “Statue of American Independence,” and architect Richard Morris Hunt received copyrights for the pedestal.
Barry Moreno’s Statue of Liberty Encyclopedia (2005) recounts the memory of a German immigrant who encountered the statue in 1911: “I remember we see Statue of Liberty. Gus asked me, ‘What’s the statue?’ And then we’re looking … and his father say, ‘That’s Christopher Columbus.’ And I put my two cents out. I say, ‘Listen, this don’t look like Christopher Columbus. That’s a lady there.'”
At a livestock exhibition at Plymouth, England, in 1907, attendees were invited to guess the weight of an ox and to write their estimates on cards, with the most accurate estimates receiving prizes. About 800 tickets were issued, and after the contest these made their way to Francis Galton, who found them “excellent material.”
“The average competitor,” he wrote, “was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes, and the variety among the voters to judge justly was probably much the same in either case.”
Happily for all of us, he found that the guesses in the aggregate were quite accurate. The middlemost estimate was 1,207 pounds, and the weight of the dressed ox proved to be 1,198 pounds, an error of 0.8 percent. This has been borne out in subsequent research: When a group of people make individual estimates of a quantity, the mean response tends to be fairly accurate, particularly when the crowd is diverse and the judgments are independent.
Galton wrote, “This result is, I think, more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment than might have been expected.”
(Francis Galton, “Vox Populi,” Nature, March 7, 1907.)