Engineering collage

Sixtieth anniversary of the world's largest records database

As the famous ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ marks its 60th birthday, E&T’s features editor, who was also the Book of Records’ first Russian translator, explains why recording science and technology achievements can be politically sensitive.

Our lives are but a succession of records and firsts - national, international and personal. Records and firsts are synonymous, for every record is also a first and every first is a record.One doesn’t have to be an Olympian to become a record-setter. Your fastest run or deepest dive, your first date and first day at school - all qualify as entries in the (mostly unwritten) personal record books. For example, my youngest daughter, aged 13, recently set a personal record with her first unaccompanied long-distance train journey from Edinburgh to Stevenage.

Records are ubiquitous. On 3 October 2015, the Times newspaper carried the story of the tragic death of an American adventurer in a wingsuit accident - he had, at the age of 17, become the youngest man to climb the highest mountains on all seven continents. Underneath it was the news that Venezuelan chocolatiers had made the world’s biggest edible coin at “almost 8ft across and 8in thick”.

On the same day last October, my uncomplaining email inbox ingested a press release about Microsoft breaking a Guinness World Record to be recognised as home to the quietest place on Earth, with the company’s Redmond campus anechoic chamber registering an ambient background noise level as low as -20dB(A), as well as a PR story about a speed-networking world record attempt to be taking place at the Business Show at Olympia, London.

Engineers are record-breakers by definition, and each new invention or innovation is a record in its own right.

Russia rules?

Like most people, I have my own list of records. For example, I am credited with the rather deplorable achievement of being the first ever journalist to write about organised crime (and some other formerly forbidden topics) in the USSR.

But there is another first of which I am genuinely proud. It is directly connected with the peculiar business of records recording and the world-famous ‘The Guinness Book of Records’ (or ‘Guinness World Records’, as it is now called), which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. I was its first ever Russian translator. Here’s the story...

Believe it or not, until Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost of the mid-1980s, the internationally acclaimed ‘Book of Records’ was banned in the USSR - the country where I was born and grew up - alongside the works of Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, Trotsky and others.

Why? ‘A very good question,’ as politicians (and scientists and engineers) like to say when they are not quite sure of how to respond. I am not a politician, so here’s an unequivocal answer: records can be extremely sensitive, both politically and ideologically.

The main reason for banning ‘The Guinness Book of Records’ in the USSR was not the carefully concealed world’s highest prison population figures mentioned in the ‘Book’. Nor even the Soviet Union’s role as a disgraceful ‘runner up’ (right after Mao Zedong’s China) in the number of victims of political repression. No. The most explosive section of the book, from the Soviet rulers’ point of view, was the one that listed the world’s groundbreaking science and engineering achievements.

The explanation was simple. The USSR had always suffered from a severe case of collective megalomania. Starting from kindergarten we were led to believe that our country was the greatest, the freest and the largest in the world (the latter, incidentally, was true - the fact that added some perverse credibility to the overall baloney). At school, we were taught that Russian always conducted only just wars and that (here it starts!) everything - from the wheel to the electric bulb - had been invented by the Russians. I remember reading in one deranged Soviet source that yogurt, an ancient Turkic product, designated with a clearly Turkic word, was a Russian invention too.

We were left in little doubt that the first powered aircraft was plagiarised by Wilbur and Orville Wright from the Russian engineer Nikolay Zhukovsky. Wireless telegraph (read: radio) was discovered not by Guglielmo Marconi, but by Alexander Popov. The first steam engine and the first steam locomotive were both creations of Ivan Polzunov’s genius (move over Thomas Savery, George Stephenson and James Watt). The helicopter idea was first devised not by Leonardo da Vinci but by Igor Sikorsky - and so on and so forth.

As another Soviet-born journalist, Masha Gessen, points out, “What you learn as a child really stays with you. And sometimes it is a revelation to me now when I find out that something has its origins elsewhere when I was convinced the whole time that it had origins in Russia.”

Alexander Gurnov, a well-known Russian TV presenter of the 1990s, went even further by stating in a BBC interview: “Neck ties from Italy, jeans from the USA - they are all Russian inventions. So there’s no such thing as being unpatriotic by buying a BMW because BMW was founded by a Russian engineer.”

As you see, living in the Soviet Union one could be forgiven for thinking that there was no real life west of Kaliningrad and east of Khabarovsk, and for experiencing doubts that the Western world existed at all and was not just another KGB invention to keep the Soviet people under control.

Indeed, records and firsts, particularly in the areas of technology and engineering, can be extremely political. Whereas pre-Communist Russia had its fair share of inventions (a lengthy list, which incidentally does not include vodka - an archetypal Russian drink originating in Poland), the post-1917 Soviet Union could not boast of too many.

There was Sputnik, the first man in space and breakthroughs in military technology and particle physics - this should have been more than enough for a ‘normal’ country without inferiority complex - but the USSR, despite being (indisputably) the vastest country in the world, was also the one with the biggest chip on its shoulder - a carefully hidden record not registered in any existing books. Hence all the above lies and deceptions. The ‘evil empire’ simply had to be the best in everything, particularly in engineering and science - if not in reality, then at least on paper.

Now you will understand why ‘The Guinness Book of Records’ was regarded as potentially explosive and unsuitable for publication in the former USSR.

Lost in translation

In 1986, while living in Moscow, to supplement my journalist’s income I was working as a part-time interpreter for the Mitchell Beazley publishers’ stand at the Moscow International Book Fair.

The time was interesting: Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ was still taboo and not allowed to be displayed by the Western exhibitors. Yet glasnost was clearly in the air, and one of its signs was a glossy latest edition of ‘The Guinness Book of Records’ prominently displayed on the Guinness Superlatives (as it was then officially known) stand next to Mitchell Beazley’s. It was the first time I was able to feast my knowledge- and information-hungry eyes on the iconic publication.

Soon I had a chance to browse through it when David Hoy, the Guinness Superlatives representative, asked me to keep an eye on their stand while he and his colleague popped out for meetings or quick snacks. It wasn’t an easy task, for nearly every Soviet visitor to the book fair was keen on nicking the famous folio. In Hoy’s words: “The officials frown at us, yet everyone wants a copy.” To thank me for keeping a good eye on the stand, the only non-stolen copy was given to me as gift.

Since then, translating ‘The Guinness Book of Records’ and having it published in Russia became an obsession of mine. Using my contacts, I tried to persuade a number of Moscow editors to run an extract or two in their periodicals, but none was brave enough to break the ice. The only editor whom I eventually managed to convince worked for Literaturnaya Rossiya (‘Literary Russia’), a popular, yet not too conspicuous, national weekly targeting members of Russian intelligentsia.

The feedback to the first selection of records, translated by me and including my short introduction to the ‘Book’ itself, was overwhelming, yet not too politically explosive, so even the ever-so-vigilant Glavlit (the KGB-run state censorship agency) had to accept that the Kremlin did not collapse as a result.

The first selection was followed by two more from the areas of art, literature and technology. Soon negotiations began to have the whole publication (well, most of it) translated into Russian.

The end of the Trocadero museum

During my first ever trip to London in October 1988 at the invitation of the Guardian newspaper, I visited Guinness Superlatives’ headquarters in Enfield and had dinner with one of the book’s founders, Norris McWhirter. With him and Roy Castle, presenter of the once very popular British TV show ‘Record Breakers’, we launched the 1989 edition of the book in the HMV store in Oxford Street, London.

As a thank-you gesture, the publishers urged me to go to the gift shop of their World Records Exhibition in the Trocadero and help myself to as much merchandise as I could carry. Coming from late 1980s Moscow, with its barren shop shelves, I didn’t need to be asked twice. I suspect that the company may still be reeling from my shopping (or should I say ‘looting’) experience. I might have unknowingly set a new world record in the amount of goods carried out of a shop by a single unassisted individual. How did I transport the lot to Moscow? Well, that’s a different story, but news of the closure of the Trocadero Exhibition several years on came as no big surprise to me.

The first Russian edition of the ‘Book’, a translated version of the 1988 UK edition, came out in 1989, with all science and engineering records reproduced in full.

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