The Extraordinary Lives of the World's Tallest People

As a relatively tall person, I know that excessive height means struggling to find fashionable shoes that fit and fighting sneeze guards at salad bars. Here are the stories of several people way taller than me, the good they've done with their extreme height, and the problems encountered along the way.

Sandy Allen

Until her death on August 13, Sandy Allen was verified by Guinness Book of World Records as the world's tallest woman—over 7-feet, 7-inches—a record she held since 1976. She initially contacted Guinness in order to meet someone her own height. "It is needless to say my social life is practically nil," she wrote, "and perhaps the publicity from your book may brighten my life." Indeed, she became a public figure, appearing in the Guinness Museum of World Records in Ontario and making speaking appearances for youth and church groups. She turned her experiences into a book (Cast a Giant Shadow), appeared in many film projects, and was the subject of a 1982 Split Enz song.

Robert Wadlow

Robert Pershing Wadlow of Alton, Illinois, is the tallest person in recorded history. Everyone in his family was of average height, and Robert was a standard size when he was born. His height is attributed to hypertrophy of his pituitary gland, which created an excess of human growth hormone. At the time of his death, he was a staggering 8-feet, 11-inches tall, and he would have continued to grow due to his medical condition.

Wadlow received a scholarship and planned to become an attorney, but his size made college difficult. Pens and pencils were hard to grasp, and the icy Illinois winters made him fear a fall while walking between academic buildings. After a year of college, he joined the circus and later became a goodwill ambassador for the International Shoe Company. He and his father toured the west coast, and the nation became enamored with the Alton Giant.

In 1940, Wadlow didn't notice that he had developed a blister from his leg braces. This led to a lethal infection. His funeral attracted more than 30,000 mourners—he was buried in a half-ton coffin that was interred within a vault of solid concrete to deter vandals and thieves. His family had all of his belongings destroyed in order to prevent collectors from displaying them as freak show items. Many life size figures and statues of Wadlow have been erected across the country.

Yao Defen

Defen may be approved by Guinness as the world's tallest woman in the near future, as she claims to stand 7-feet, 8-inches tall. Though she was scouted as a potential athletic superstar in China, she proved to be too weak due to health problems caused by acromegaly (a condition where the pituitary gland continues to produce growth hormone well after puberty, usually caused by a tumor). Illiterate and in need of money to support her aging parents, she became a circus performer and traveled with her father. After he died, she was severely mistreated by the circus manager, who denied her medical treatment and bullied her into contract extensions.

A British documentary crew discovered Defen impoverished, malnourished and in failing health. They filmed a special about her for The Discovery Channel and were able to arrange free medical care from two leading acromegaly specialists. The doctors established a website for her, and thanks to many generous donors, enough money has been raised to provide Defen with proper living conditions and nutrition. Once her health stabilizes, she will undergo surgery to remove the remainder of her pituitary gland tumor, which is making her go blind.

Gheorghe Muresan

muresan.jpgNo list of tall people would be complete without a basketball player. Romanian Gheorghe Muresan is the tallest NBA player of all time, a hair above the previous record holder, Manute Bol. Muresan's height is attributed to a pituitary disorder. His professional career was often derailed by injuries, and he was sent back to the European league after one season in the NBA. Muresan overcame his ailments, returned to the NBA and was named Most Improved Player in 1995. He completed his career with a per-game average of 9.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, and a .573 field goal percentage. After retiring from basketball in 2000, Muresan dabbled in acting, playing a ventriloquist in Eminem's "Slim Shady" video and the title role in the film My Giant.

Bao Xishun


Mongolian herdsman Bao Xishun was listed as the world's tallest living man until August 2007. He is only 7-feet, 9-inches tall, but has no known growth disorder. He played basketball for the army, but severe rheumatism forced him to quit. He returned to Inner Mongolia and became a greeter at a local restaurant and drew the attention of the media, who wrote to Guinness on his behalf. Though Leonid Stadnik quickly surpassed his record, Xishun is still a hugely popular figure. In December 2006, he used his extra long arms to remove dangerous shards of plastic from the bellies of two dolphins.

[Image courtesy of The Cellar.]

Leonid Stadnyk

Ukranian veterinarian Leonid Stadnyk may be the tallest living person, standing at an impressive height of 8-feet, 5-inches. For years, Stadnyk refused to be officially measured because of his desire to live a quiet life. Like Yao Defen, he was the subject of a documentary by The Discovery Channel and received treatment from specialists.

leonid.jpgStadnyk's excessive growth began after brain surgery when he was 14 years old. After the surgery, he developed acromegaly and continued to grow until he was in his mid-30s, when his tumor naturally disappeared. His height forced him to give up his job as a veterinarian after suffering frostbite on his feet—he was unable to afford the specially-made shoes. Like many people with acromegaly, Stadnyk's health is deteriorating at a young age, and he is currently suffering from heart and foot problems. His height keeps him confined to his tiny village. He once said, "Taking a public bus for me is the same as getting into a car's trunk for a normal person.''

However, his life seems to have improved at least slightly since he claimed the world height record; he has received many gifts, including an extra large bicycle and a computer with internet access. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko even gave him a car. To relax, Stadnyk cultivates exotic plants and pampers his tiny blue and yellow parakeet.

NOTE: Stadnyk has repeatedly refused to be measured by Guiness officials; he was originally awarded the title of world's tallest person based on a letter from his doctor. But Guinness has made their guidelines more strict and will no longer accept non-Guinness measurements for submission. Bao Xishun will once again be coronated as the world's tallest man when the 2009 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records is released in September.

[In case you were wondering, the above photo is Stadnik with Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko.]

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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