vintage trivia roundup

I’m short on time, so here now is a vintage (revised and updated), circa-2010 trivia roundup…way back when it was just discussions of things that came up at bar trivia. Real triviaphiles will tell you that the 2010s are peaking right now, because of tannins and secondary malolactic fermentation.

•     •     •

1. Billiards date back more than seven centuries. and as the sports has evolved, so has its balls. Initially crafted from wood, clay, or whatever was available, ivory became the ball material of choice in the 19th century. Each elephant tusk produced a maximum of eight balls, or one elephant per set. Decades of wholesale slaughter ensued until someone ran the numbers and realized that an animal with a 2-year gestation period couldn’t reproduce quickly enough to keep pool halls stocked. Also, there was a major surplus of umbrella stands.


In the late 1800s, Brunswick—at the time known as Phelan and Collender—offered a $10,000 prize to whomever found a suitable ivory substitute. The first acceptable replacement was nitrocellulose, immediately recognizable to students of chemistry, film history, or explosives as insanely dangerous. Indeed, so volatile is nitrocellulose that after the new billiard balls were released, sporadic, unconfirmed reports came in of the balls exploding when struck.

Nitrocellulose was more commonly and more disatrously used in film stock for the better part of 50 years. Nitro film could spontaneously combust, and did so: massive conflagrations happened in Ireland (1926; 48 deaths), Scotland (1929, 71 deaths), and the Cleveland Clinic (X-ray films ignited in 1929, causing 126 deaths). Also, have I mentioned that nitrocellulose film will continue burning even if submerged in water? And that it produces a poisonous gas while burning? It’s still used as a coating for playing cards, and as a component of that odd semi-adhesive that holds together rows of staples.

Anyways, nitrocellulose billiard balls didn’t last too long, and the guy who invented them didn’t even collect on the $10,000. Later, balls would be made from Bakelite, the world’s first synthetic plastic and cover model for the inaugural issue of Plastics magazine in 1925 (not kidding), and Lucite.

•     •     •

2. Fun fact about the equator: because points on the equator move faster than any other points on earth, spacecraft launched eastward require less fuel/energy to reach orbit than from other points. Another equator fun fact: Equatorial Guinea doesn’t come within 100 miles of the equator. Extremely not-fun Equatorial Guinea fact, copy/pasted because I won’t even attempt to rephrase it: “On Christmas 1975, Macías had 150 alleged coup plotters executed to the sound of a band playing Mary Hopkin’s tune Those Were the Days in a national stadium.” That is the most grotesque and diabolical thing I’ve ever encountered, and I once heard Dick Cheney eating a chili cheese dog.

•     •     •

3. Periodic table note: the first person to discover a new element (post-antiquity) was a bankrupt German alchemist named Hennig Brand. His elaborate scheme involved distilling urine, allowing it to rot, then boiling it down to a paste—from which he derived small glowing quantities of phosphorus in 1669. Years later, researchers discovered that fresh urine worked just as well, but once you’re deep into a urine putrefaction scheme, it’s hard to step back.

The scheme, in any case, required lots of urine: more than 1000 liters of pee to produce just 60 grams of phosphorous. Where was he coming up with all this urine? Tragically, his procedure for converting piss into gold, silver, and molybdenum are lost to history, with only a mocking note in his journals: “I have discovered a truly marvelous method for transmuting mine urine into those most precious metals. This margin is too narrow to contain it.” Ironically, he died after refusing to leave the table to use the restroom at a dinner party, causing his bladder to burst (wait, no! that was Tycho Brahe!)

The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus, by Joseph Wright
The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus, by Joseph Wright

Side note about phosphorus: in the mid 19th century, matches were made using white phosphorus. The matches could ignite almost anywhere, but were also wildly, exquisitely dangerous: “poisonous to the workers in manufacture, sensitive to storage conditions, toxic if ingested, and hazardous when accidentally ignited on a rough surface.”

How dangerous to workers? Long-term exposure to the element causes severe bone necrosis, particularly in the jaw, a condition called “Phossy Jaw” which I strongly recommend you do not run an image search for. The ravages of the condition on factory workers led to the unsuccessful London matchgirls strike if 1888. Eventually the Salvation Army stepped in to produce safer matches made with red phosphorus, which is still used today, but they were too expensive. White phosphorus matches were produced until a multi-nation treaty in 1906 outlawed them. “We must ignite our whale oil lamps!” shouted the Victorian aristocracy. “Damn your feeble jaws and callow spirits! We must have a candlepower to rival the sun. The SUUUUN! Harrumph harrumph harrumph! <jowl flapping noises> <eats ortolan>”


4. Like so many other sports, table tennis actually began as after-dinner entertainment for the ruling class. The net was a stack of books at first, the paddle was a hardcover, and the ball was a golf ball. Later iterations would entail cigar box lids and champagne corks.

•     •     •

5. The Parker Brothers toy and game company dates back to 1883! George Parker, who believed that games should be fun rather than teach moral lessons, developed a board game called Banking. Which, again, was intended to be fun. Encouraged by his brother, he began selling the game and a board game monopoly was formed. The company would go on to be the first producers of Nerf balls. They were later bought by General Mills, merged with Kenner, bought by Tonka, then bought by Hasbro. I remain endlessly fascinated by the weird incestuous circular history of corporate mergers.

Parker Brothers have long held that Monopoly was invented by Charles Darrow around 1935 (not to be confused with Clarence, of monkey trial fame). This requires either outright disingenuousness or a bit of semantic two-stepping, since a Quaker woman named Elizabeth Phillips had created The Landlord’s Game in 1903, which was intended to demonstrate the negative consequences of wealth and property concentration. Darrow began to sell his game—plainly a ripoff—in 1935, whence it was bought by Parker Brothers. He became a millionaire; Phillips did not (good NYT article on her here).


In the 1970s the company was sued over the trademark. Courts decided that the name Monopoly was generic and so could not be trademarked. Hasbro whined and Congress immediately mobilized to pass a trademark bill that allowed “generic” trademark claims. As per usual, the powerful board games lobby was able to bend Congress to its will. In any case, I’d just like to circle back to the idea that a game initially developed to demonstrate the hazards of wealth concentration and debt servitude eventually yielded a ripoff that made millions of dollars and produced a craven manipulation of the democratic process for monetary gain. Very meta. Nice job, reality. See here for a prior roundup on the history of board games.

•     •     •

6. John Jay was the first chief justice of the supreme court. The second was John Rutledge, appointed by George Washington during a congressional recess in June 1795. Rutledge wasted little time in lambasting the Jay Treaty, which in broad strokes had hashed out some post-Revolution hostilities with the British. Naught but two weeks after taking the bench, he said that he would “rather the President should die than sign that puerile instrument.” Jay, the man he replaced, replied “you’re a puerile instrument.” (I can’t verify that second part).

His opposition to the treaty pissed off the Federalists, who pamphleted their way to a grade-A character assassination. They started whisper campaigns about Rutledge’s supposed dipsomania, and insinuated a vague mental illness and emotional breakdown—for which Rutledge’s brash comments only served as evidence.  So annihilated was his reputation that when congress reconvened in December, they rejected his appointment. He’d heard only two cases, and remains the only person ever forcibly removed from the supreme court. Rutledge, shattered by the events, later attempted suicide; he died in 1800.

•     •     •

7. Finally, an annotated viewer’s guide to Bobby Brown’s On Our Own

0:22 – Remember Max Headroom?

0:25 – Is it at all possible that this video was the inspiration for Ruby Rhod in The 5th Element?

0:32 – What is the nature of these strange hieroglyphics on his shirt?

0:35 – In the future, we will have video newspapers; unfortunately owing to a peculiar quantum anomaly, they will only be able to display Bobby Brown circa 1989. People will buy them anyway.

0:38 – If you’re wondering, I took the effort to freeze frame it and the newsstand guy is wearing a giant button with a red line through a bull taking a shit.

0:52 – I’ve moved on from Max Headroom to thinking about the old Pepsi/New Generation commercials

1:00 – fashion history question: who did the neon blazer and no shirt thing first, MC Hammer or Bobby Brown?

1:02 – maybe this is just some latent OCD talking, but I find the off-center mohawk strangely unsettling. It’s just unwholesome.

1:03 – Rick Moranis!

1:04 – I don’t think he’s in character

1:05 – I think he is genuinely confused by what is going on here.

1:09 – Now genuinely terrified.

1:12 – This “stuff displayed on building facade” trick was used by Hitchcock in the opening credits to North by Northwest. I’m not even kidding.

1:19 – They must have caught him leaving one of his many bankruptcy filings.

1:20 – Surely Trump’s cameo in this video will be the scandal that dooms his candidacy, right?

1:21 – Kind of would like someone to get Trump wound up about ghosts. I bet he has OPINIONS.

1:32 – Bruce Jenner? David Hasselhoff?

1:40 – I’m gonna be totally honest: there’s a shocking lack of parachute pants involved here

1:54 – Jane Curtin? Morgan Fairchild?

1:55 – Flashback: remember the summer of 2009 when everyone thought Obama was an extra in that Run DMC video?

2:09 – Marla Maples?

2:10 – That coat? 100% chinchilla fur.

2:15 – This is factual: when I was in Manhattan women in eveningwear playing viola were by far the most common type of busker

2:18 – That dress? 100% tin foil.

2:25 – oh god oh god oh god please be Downtown Julie Brown

2:29 – Damn.

2:33 – I would lay money that this is the only Bobby Brown video to feature a flugelhorn

2:45 – Celebrities! Everyone stop to gawk! They’re just like us!

2:53 – Must have missed something, why was she so disgusted? It’s like she opened a bag of medical refuse.

3:07 – Even applying the Dan Aykroyd correction, that’s bad dancing

3:16 – Putting the lyrics on the scrolling marquee was a real “aha” moment for the director I bet.

3:25 – First reference to Vigo the Carpathian. Scourge of Carpathia, Sorrow of Moldavia. On a mountain of skulls, in a castle of pain, he sat on a throne of blood. Also known as Vigo the Cruel, Vigo the Torturer, Vigo the Despised, and Vigo the Unholy. He was poisoned, shot, stabbed, disemboweled, and drawn and quartered. Before he finally died, his final words were “Death is but a door, time is but a window. I’ll be back.” Some believe the character was actually based on FDR, but screenwriters refuse to confirm

3:50 – Interesting that Ghostbusters II takes a stand on inanimate objects becoming ghosts.

4:06 – Personally, I think Vigo is based on FDR because FDR could also shoot lightning out of his eyes.

4:38 – Scientists announce succesful cloning of Bobby Brown


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