The Fun Kids Guide to the weird and wonderful

  • A hobbit isn’t just a small, hairy-footed creature from The Lord Of The Rings books – it also used to be a unit of measurement in Wales. A hobbit measured either volume or weight – how much a hobbit weighed depended on what it was made of, so a hobbit of wheat would weigh more than half as much again as a hobbit of oats.
  • In 1941, the crew of the HMS Trident submarine lived for six weeks with a fully grown reindeer called Pollyanna on board their sub – given to them as a thank you gift from the Russians. She insisted on sleeping under the captain’s bed, developed a taste for condensed milk, and at one point ate a navigation chart. She was brought onto the submarine through one of the torpedo tubes – but when it came to take her off again when the sub reached Britain, she’d put on so much weight from the condensed milk that she wouldn’t fit back in the tube again, and had to be winched out.
  • muppetMost Muppets are left-handed. The reason for this is that most puppeteers are right-handed and operate the Muppet’s head with their favoured hand, leaving the left one to control the arms. Muppets operated by more than one puppeteer, such as the Swedish Chef, are immune to this effect.
  • Sir Isaac Newton is widely credited as being a pioneer (if not necessarily the original inventor) of the cat flap, having cut a hole in his study door so that his cat would stop disturbing him while he was working. When his cat had kittens, he cut a smaller hole for them. Genius.
  • Light doesn’t always travel at ‘the speed of light’. It only goes at that speed (299,792,458 metres per second) when travelling through a vacuum; when it passes through matter, it slows down. The slowest light has ever been recorded moving at is a 38mph, while passing through an ultracold gas of sodium atoms.
  • In 2002, businessman Mac Bosco Chawinga was attacked by a crocodile after he went for a swim in Malawi’s Nkhata Bay. As it dragged him into the lake, he retaliated by biting it hard on the nose – and it let him go. He suffered severe wounds to his arms and legs, but survived.
  • Google’s first computer storage – used for testing their algorithms – was a machine cobbled together from ten 4Gb hard drives by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1996. It was  housed in a case made out of Duplo bricks – complete with Duplo characters sitting on top.
  • Not many humans have ever been exposed to a vacuum and lived. But  a worker at the Johnson Space Center in Houston did just that in 1965 when his space suit was accidentally depressurised in a vacuum chamber. The last thing he remembered before passing out was feeling the moisture on his tongue starting to boil.
  • During his life, Austrian Hans Steininger was renowned for having the world longest beard. Unfortunately, the four and a half feet of facial hair proved to be his downfall. Trying to run away from a fire in 1567, he forgot to roll his beard up, tripped over it, and broke his neck.
  • In January 1863, in the middle of the American Civil War, some Confederate troops started a snowball fight, following heavy snowfall in Virginia’s Rappahannock Valley. Things escalated, and by the end over 9,000 soldiers were involved in the battle. Snowballing was subsequently banned among the troops, after rocks were included in some of the snowballs, causing severe injuries.
  • The dog who played Toto in The Wizard of Oz was paid more than twice the amount that the actors who played the Munchkins were. Terry, a female Cairns Terrier, got $125 per week, while the short-statured actors playing the Munchkins only got $50 a week.
  • Barbed wire, as we know it today, was invented in 1874 by an American farmer named Joseph Glidden, after his wife complained about livestock escaping. He started work on his idea using hairpins he stole from his wife, before moving on to producing the barbs using an old coffee mill.
  • ‘Unsinkable Sam’ was a ship’s cat in both the German and British navies during World War II. Even though all three ships he sailed on (the German Bismarck, then the British Cossack and Ark Royal) were sunk within the space of six months in 1941, Sam survived each time – although he never went to sea again.
  • In 1900, a 19-year-old called Max Hirschberg joined the gold rush by travelling around 1,200 miles across Alaska – on his bicycle. He suffered snow-blindness and exposure, nearly drowned, lost all money, and eventually had to use his coat as a sail to power the bike for the final stage of his journey after his chain broke.
  • On average the amount people can hold their breath is around one minute. Smashing that time to achieve an astounding 21 minutes 29 seconds was Hungarian escape artist David Merlini, who achieved a world record on April 26 2009 for holding his breath underwater at the starting line of the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix.
  • The goldfishworld’s oldest goldfish (in captivity, at least) lived to the age of 43. Tish, as he was called, was won at a funfair in Doncaster in 1956. He died in 1999, and was buried in a yoghurt pot at the bottom of his owner’s garden.
  • In 1510, priests in Autun, France, brought legal proceedings against the town’s rats because they were eating the barley crop. However, the rats’ lawyer, Bartholomew Chassenee, successfully argued that not all the rats could have recieved the legal summons, and furthermore couldn’t appear in court because they might be eaten by cats. The case was dropped.
  • The Boston Massacre of 1770 – which left five people dead and sparked a series of rebellions that culminated in the American Revolution – was sparked by an argument over whether a British soldier had paid his wig-maker’s bill – he had, in fact, but by the time anybody found that out, it was too late.
  • Walt Disney was once told by his doctor that he was too stressed, and should find some way of relaxing. So he took up golf. Unfortunately, he became so obsessed with perfecting the game that he ended up getting up at 4.30am to play a round, making him more stressed than ever.
  • Humans have discovered or invented over 50 million different chemicals in history – that’s according to the American Chemical Society’s database of unique chemicals, which passed the 50 million threshold on Monday. Over the past year, a new substance has been uncovered or created every 2.6 seconds.
  • The myth that lemmings regularly hurl themselves off cliffs (they don’t) was widely popularised by the makers of the Oscar-winning Disney documentary White Wilderness, who – lacking any real-life lemming suicides to film – decided to push a load of lemmings off a cliff into a river instead.
  • Charlie CCharlie Chaplinhaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest (which were popular across America when Chaplin first became famous in 1915) in a San Francisco theatre. He lost – not even making it as far as the final round.
  • When he was eight, Mozart was tested by a member of the Royal Society to establish (among other things) whether he was in fact a child, as opposed to a dwarf. The tester, Daines Barrington, was eventually convinced when Mozart, in the middle of playing a piece, was distracted by a cat that ran through the room.
  • The current world record holder for the largest collection of belly button fluff is Mr Graham Barker of Perth, Australia. He has been collecting his navel lint for over 25 years, since January 1984, in a series of jars. He estimates he collects just over 3 milligrams a day.
  • The first international cricket match in history was played between those noted cricketing powerhouses, Canada and the USA. It happened in New York’s Bloomingdale Park in September 1844, and is widely regarded as the first ever international sporting match of any kind. (Canada won by 23 runs.)
  • In the famous bicycle sequence from the 1969 film, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, set to the sounds of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head by Burt Bacharach, actor Paul Newman did almost all his own stunts because the stuntman was unable to stay on the bike. However, one stunt – where Butch crashes into a fence – was performed by the film’s cinematographer, Conrad L Hall, who won an Oscar for the movie. He went on to win two more Oscars, for American Beauty and Road To Perdition, which also starred Newman.
  • The slowest-flying birds in the world are the American and Eurasian woodcocks, which both impressively manage to avoid falling out of the sky while flying at only 5mph during their elaborate courtship routines.