QI: A selection #2

William Phelps Eno, an American credited with developing the stop sign, the roundabout, one-way streets, island crossings, bus stops, taxi stands and traffic signal towers never learned to drive. He much preferred to ride horses, thought cars a mere fad and was driven everywhere by a chauffeur. “Roundabout” was coined by another American, Logan Pearsall Smith, who suggested it to the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English in 1927. Until then, British roundabouts were called “gyratory circuses”.

Eno’s innovations didn’t come in time to save Bridget Driscoll. In 1896, she became the first road traffic fatality when she was struck by a car travelling at 4mph while on her way to a folk-dancing display in Crystal Palace. The coroner at her inquest hoped “such a thing would never happen again”. Now more than a million people die in traffic accidents each year: but you still only run the same risk of being knocked down and killed crossing the road as you do of contracting CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease): 1 in 365 million. And 38 per cent of UK pedestrians who die on the roads are drunk.


The father of the modern frozen-food industry, Clarence Birdseye (1886–1956), was known as “Bugs” at college because of his passion for animals. He became notorious for his willingness to consume any creature: starlings, blackbirds, whale, porpoise, lynx, alligator, lizards. “I ate about everything… beaver tail, polar bear and lion tenderloin,” he said. “And I’ll tell you another thing — the front half of a skunk is excellent.” One of his soups combined bits of mice, chipmunks, gophers and packrats. In 1916, he moved to Labrador to make his fortune trapping foxes and learnt from Eskimos how to quick-freeze (when food is frozen really quickly, only small ice-crystals form, so no damage is done to the food’s cell walls, preserving its texture and flavour when defrosted). In 1923 Birdseye founded his eponymous company with an investment of $7 for an electric fan, buckets of brine and blocks of ice.


Despite what we were taught at school, there are five, not four, basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and… umami, which is the taste of protein in meat, cheese and fish. It was first identified by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 in Japan, but was only confirmed as the true “fifth taste” in 2000, when researchers at the University of Miami reported their discovery of a protein receptor on the human tongue. “Umami” is derived from umai, the word for tasty in Japanese. Ikeda discovered that the umami taste was caused by the salt of glutamic acid, monosodium glutamate, or MSG, as it’s now known. Ikeda was shrewd: he sold the recipe to Ajinomoto Company, which still holds a third of the 1.5-million-ton global market for synthetic MSG. The importance of protein in our diet means that it makes sense for umami to create a pleasurable sensation in our brains, unlike bitter, for example, which indicates danger. A robust, mature red wine apparently tastes just like umami.


In 1969, William Safire, President Nixon’s speech-writer, wrote a speech entitled “In the Event of Moon Disaster”. This was pre-recorded and filmed to be used if Armstrong and Aldrin became marooned and failed to return to Earth. The speech began: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace.” It ended with a space-age take on Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier: “For every human being who looks up at the Moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”


The popular idea of six degrees of separation, by which someone can be connected to anyone else in just six steps, emerged from the experiments of Stanley Milgram at Harvard. In 1967, Milgram sent packages to 160 random Nebraskans and asked them to forward each one to someone who would be better placed to get it to the target recipient, a Boston stockbroker. The majority, Milgram claimed, made it to Boston within six steps. The phrase was popularised by the eponymous play (and later film) written in 1990 by John Guare, inspired by the life of a conman called David Hampton, who posed as Sidney Poitier’s son and swindled many celebrities and New Yorkers out of thousands of dollars. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the popular US college game of the 1990s, in which actors were assigned a Bacon number based on their career proximity to the ubiquitous actor, has inspired him to set up a charitable online social network called www.SixDegrees.org.


When Napoleon visited the Great Pyramids in Egypt, he asked to be left alone in the Kings’ Chamber; when he emerged, he was visibly shaken. Asked what had happened, he made no comment but asked for the incident not to be mentioned again. On Napoleon’s deathbed, a friend asked him what had really happened, but the former emperor shook his head and said: “No. What’s the use? You’d never believe me.”


The term private eye comes from the logo of Pinkerton, a US detective agency established in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton, who was responsible for foiling a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. The logo is an eye embellished with the words “We Never Sleep”. Throughout the 19th century, companies would hire Pinkerton operatives to combat worker’s strikes, until the Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893, which prevented a Pinkerton detective from working for the government. Pinkerton agents were used to track down Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.


A quarter of all words used in English are the nine words: the, of, and, to, it, you, be, have and will.


The last two speakers of the Mexican language Zoque, now in their 70s, refuse to speak to one another.


In adverts, the hands of a clock or watch usually show the time as 10.10 to display the logo of the manufacturer to best effect by framing it between the hands.


Canaletto’s real name was Canal. Caravaggio’s real first name was Michelangelo and his patron was Del Monte. Che Guevara’s father was called Ernesto Lynch (his family were from Galway). Geronimo’s real name was Goyathley – “He Who Yawns”. Stalin’s Georgian name was Iosif Vissiaronovitch Dzhugashvili. Dzhuga means “rubbish” in Ossetian. Stalin, “Man of Steel” in Russian, was first used by other Bolsheviks behind his back.


For 122 years, the Russian head of state has alternatively been either bald or hairy. It is said to be one reason why Putin (bald) won the election to succeed Yeltsin (hairy). The sequence is: Alexander II (hairy), Alexander III (bald), Nicholas II (hairy), Lenin (bald), Stalin (hairy), Krushchev (bald), Brezhnev (hairy), Andropov (bald), Chernenko (hairy), Gorbachev (bald), Yeltsin (hairy), Putin (bald). The recently elected President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, has a lovely head of hair.


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