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For the record: Guinness book open to industry’s greatest hits

Jun 21, 20046 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMobileSmall and Medium Business

Traditional fare still there, but so are wireless LANs, 'Net cafes.

The Guinness World Records book’s first full-time science and technology editor scours the world for technology feats.

“The public has an appetite for science and technology, especially when it’s well explained and presented,” says the 31-year-old Hawksett, who for the past four years has served as the Guinness World Records book’s first full-time science and technology editor.

“Times have changed. We’re still tracking remarkable feats in the living world, but we no longer keep records for hunting tigers on safari, for example, and a lot of the gluttony records are out. Meanwhile, cyberhistory is being taken more seriously,” says Hawksett, who boasts of having copies of the world’s first JPEGs on his computer.

It’s not that the 50th anniversary edition isn’t celebrating the sensational as well as the more serious. It’s just that Hawksett has his focus. Among the new Internet-related entries is the record for the largest networked chess system, which earlier this year tapped the power of 2,070 computers in 50-plus countries to take on a Danish grandmaster (the match ended in a draw after 34 moves). Last week, Hawksett was busy trying to verify a claim for the world’s highest-capacity router. Also being considered is a claim by ACT Teleconferencing and customer Herbalife that in March they smashed erstwhile presidential candidate Howard Dean’s record for the greatest number of participants in a conference call by topping the 10,000 mark.

Hawksett, who can view the world’s tallest observation wheel (a sort of Ferris wheel called the London Eye) from his eighth-floor office in London, says the rise of the Internet has resulted in a corresponding increase in network-related records worthy of inclusion in the Guinness book.

Guinness gets pounded with roughly 100,000 inquiries about new records per year, fewer than 5% of which are accepted in a process that can take anywhere from hours to months. The publication, which is produced by a team of about 10 writers and editors, keeps mounds and mounds of records in an electronic database, far more than can be squeezed into the book each year.

Hawksett says he doesn’t have hard numbers on how many of the inquiries relate to his beat, but 20-plus items fill the Internet section of the 2004 paperback edition, including the largest Internet café (EasyEverything’s spot in Times Square) and the earliest e-mail (Ray Tomlinson’s message sent in 1971). In addition, another 40-plus entries fall under technology and communications headings. There wasn’t even an Internet section before the 1996 edition, Hawksett says.

Record holder Bill Cheswick says he and cohort Hal Burch, while at Bell Labs in the late 1990s, never envisioned that the massive cyberspace map they designed would land them in the Guinness book alongside the world’s most accomplished fire-breathers and yodelers. Cheswick says he suspects the colorfulness of the map, not just the 88,000 endpoints highlighted in the book, is what caught the publisher’s eye.

“It’s fun to be in there, though it’s not like I have it on my [résumé] – though now that I think about it, maybe I should,” says Cheswick, a noted network security author and currently chief scientist at Lumeta, a company that grew out of his Internet mapping work.

Record breakers

The Internet, communications industry and computing are making their mark in the Guinness World Records book, as this sampling shows:
Largest Internet café: EasyEverything in Times Square, home to 648 computer terminals.

Smallest telephone: Jan Piotr Krutewicz in 1996 created a working phone measuring 1.8 by .03 by .08 inches.
Largest single e-commerce transaction: Business tycoon Mark Cuban spent $40 million on a Gulfstream V jet in 1999.
Longest telephone cable: FLAG, or Fiber-optic Link Around the Globe, which runs for 16,800 miles from Japan to the U.K.
Earliest JPEG: The original images, from 1987, are known as “Boat,” “Barbara,” “Toys” and “Zelda.”

Hawksett says tracking tech records is a huge challenge, partly because many record holders don’t think to contact him and because of the constantly changing nature of technology. A record might be broken several more times in the span of a year. For example, the Internet2 consortium keeps Hawksett abreast of what the group calls the land speed record for whisking data across IP networks.

Harvey Newman, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, and his team, along with a group from CERN, earned a spot in the 2004 book by sending 6.7G bytes of data – “equivalent to nearly two feature-length DVD movies” according to Guinness – across 6,821 miles of network between California and The Netherlands in less than a minute.

“We already beat our records by a significant margin. We will submit these soon,” he writes. “We are approaching the PCI-X bus theoretical speed limit of 8.5G bit/sec. So the rate of progress will [temporarily] slow down. We can always extend the distance, and we will, but that will just gain another factor of order two to three over where weare now. Eventually we will circle the earth, in not too long.”

In general, academic-oriented research is fairly easy to track by working closely with institutions such as Caltech and leading labs, says Hawksett, who uses his background in astrophysics and planetary science to help him sort through highly technical submissions.

But tracking record feats in the IT industry is another story. “The professionals in that industry just don’t usually think to contact us. They don’t think in terms of superlatives,” says Hawksett, who plows through technical journals and travels abroad several times a year to discover and substantiate new records.

The notion that IT product vendors shy away from superlatives might come as a surprise to anyone in the industry who has been through a product pitch, but Hawksett insists he could use help from the network industry in identifying record-breaking events and technologies. He encourages those with proposals to visit He’s currently thinking about how to measure the biggest wireless LAN, for example.

Some proposed records are just too vague to verify, such as the longest telephone call or the most threads on an online discussion board, Hawksett says.

Others have become taboo. While the latest edition of the book recognizes a 1983 self-replicating software program as the first computer virus, Hawksett stresses he wants to keep other virus records out.

“The last thing we need is to find out some 17-year-old wrote a virus in hopes of getting into the Guinness book and winds up doing $10 billion of damage in the process,” he says.

Editor’s note: The author of this story set the world record for endurance yo-yoing in the mid-1980s and was recognized in the book for several years before being topped. He has no plans to recapture the record.