Ken Jennings

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January 3, 2008

flossposter.gifThere’s a new issue of mental_floss magazine on the stands, so here, as usual, is the first draft of my 6° of Ken Jennings article. Really, you should check out the magazine version of this article, though, even if you’re not a subscriber yet. The accompanying art is a portrait of Plato–sculpted in Play-Doh! It’s genius. And must have taken someone hours to do. (And then more hours to wash the weird, salty, Play-Doh smell from their hands.)

Plato and Play-Doh

We owe a lot to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato—Platonic realism, Platonic solids, Platonic love affairs—but did you know that, without Plato, we wouldn’t have Aquaman either? In his dialogue Timaeus, Plato created Aquaman’s home, the legendary lost continent of Atlantis, which he placed in the north Atlantic, “beyond the pillars of Hercules.” Plato wrote that Atlantis—which he proposed as a political allegory, not as serious geography, by the way—had been destroyed by earthquake in a single night nine thousand years earlier.

The tragic loss of Space Shuttle Columbia isn’t the only time NASA has had trouble with the foam insulation on the shuttles’ fuel tanks. Last year, shuttle Atlantis had a mission delayed three months when golf-ball-sized hail tore up its insulation on the launch pad. And in 1995, NASA workers came back from a long Memorial Day weekend to find hundreds of holes gouged in shuttle Discovery’s insulation. The culprits turned out to be a nearby flock of northern flicker woodpeckers engaged in springtime mating rituals. According to news reports, a crack NASA anti-woodpecker task force bought some bullhorns and plastic owls at Wal-Mart, and their bird problem went away. I’m sure you’re asking the same thing I am at this point: Wal-Mart sells plastic owls?!

Beloved cartoon annoyance Woody Woodpecker was voiced for over three decades by Grace Stafford, the wife of Woody’s creator, producer Walter Lantz. Stafford long refused to be credited for her work, fearing that audiences weren’t ready to accept a, um, female Woody. The woodpecker’s original voice, though, was “Man of a Thousand Voices” Mel Blanc, who created Woody’s famous stuttering laugh—and then sued Lantz when the laugh was featured in Woody’s theme song long after Blanc had left the series.

Mel Blanc identified closely with his toon progeny. After Blanc was in a three-week coma after a 1961 car crash—I guess he shouldn’t have taken that left turn at Albuquerque!—he reported that his doctors couldn’t get him to respond until they addressed him as “Bugs Bunny” rather than as “Mr. Blanc.” But if we’re splitting hares, Blanc and Bugs did disagree on one thing: Mel hated raw carrots, and would always spit out the chewed-up carrot in disgust after recording the sound of Bugs munching on one.

You know who had even more reason to hate carrots than Mel Blanc? Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s legal battles with the Marquess of Queensberry, which ended with the Irish playwright imprisoned for two years of hard labor, began with a simple bouquet of carrots. Lord Queensberry—yes, the same one who created the rules of modern boxing—didn’t like the attention Wilde had been paying to Queensberry’s son Alfred, so he crashed the premiere of one of Wilde’s plays hoping to embarrass him with the aforementioned “phallic bouquet.” After Wilde’s release from jail, he lived his last three years penniless, a broken man, and died in a shabby Paris hotel just a month after delivering his last famous witticism: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do!”

In 1954, Cincinnati manufacturer Joe McVicker was facing financial ruin. The invention of easy-to-wash vinyl wallpaper meant that the days were numbered for McVicker’s flagship product, Kutol wallpaper cleaner. Then his sister-in-law, a schoolteacher, read an article claiming that Christmas tree ornaments could be made from slabs of wallpaper cleaner. Her nursery school kids loved sculpting the doughy stuff, and she talked McVicker into adding food coloring to his product. Play-Doh was born. Okay, maybe Play-Doh hasn’t had quite the influence on Western though that Plato did, but did Plato ever sell two billion cans of anything worldwide? I don’t think so.

Posted by Ken at 12:53 pm