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A Life Among the Factoids

October 27, 2002

Here's a piece of trivia: Americans love trivia. It's everywhere -- TV, newspapers, magazines, everyday conversations. Trivia is irresistible. It can mean nothing. When was the fork first used in America? (1630.) But trivia is entertaining. Who invented the sports bra? (Hinda Miller and Lisa Zobian-Lindahl.)

Trivia, sometimes called a factoid to provide minor intellectual heft, might prove useful in chats or meetings. (You know, this is the first World Series of wild-card teams.) Trivia is like Cliffs Notes for conversations. Trivia suits a TV society and the 21st century. You can sound informed about something without really knowing anything.

Who knows more about trivia than anyone, and how old is he? Caught you. He's Joseph Nathan Kane. And he just died at 103. The son of a New York fur importer, Kane had a fascination with facts, annoying an entire generation of teachers with seemingly unanswerable questions. Who was the shortest president? (James Madison at 5-foot-4.) Kane understood Americans' fascination with trivia. So Kane spent most of a century collecting trivia for his books and our libraries. Without him we might not know that Chester Greenwood invented earmuffs, Alexander Douglas patented the bustle and Amelia Bloomer was the first woman to wear guess what? (Bloomers.)

Kane's trivia work could be funny -- first American to hug a queen of England (Alice Frazier, 1991); first to be struck by a meteorite (Elizabeth Hodges, 1954, bruised). It could be intriguing -- first notable American cross-dresser (Edward Hyde, 1702). It could be historical -- the initial patent on sandpaper (Isaac Fischer Jr., 1834); first president in a helicopter (Eisenhower, 1957). Or it could be athletic -- first American team sport (not baseball, but lacrosse). Trivia can be curious. (Marvin Stone invented drinking straws in 1886.)

Trivia can be importantly corrective -- Henry Ford didn't invent the car (Charles Duryea did), Isaac Singer didn't invent the sewing machine (Walter Hunt did), and Gustave Whitehead flew a plane two years before Orville Wright. Trivia can be useful: Next time a lawyer acts arrogant, ask who was the first disbarred American attorney (Thomas Lechford, 1639, jury tampering). Trivia can also be satisfying -- when you read the next Nov. 5 newspaper election poll, recall that the first was published in 1824 and predicted Andrew Jackson's election. (John Quincy Adams won.)

Kane spent a cloistered life in New York City writing and researching all this and more. How many children did he have? (None, he never married.) But he is survived by 52 books and millions of facts to feed American curiosity for years. You won't believe what else Benjamin Franklin invented. Collecting trivia in our society, it turns out, is no trivial pursuit. (Water skis.)

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