Thinkstock
Thinkstock

25 Things Turning 25 This Year

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

The year 1988 was a quarter-century ago. If you're turning 25 this year, good news—you can now rent a car in the US without paying a weird fee, and you're as old as the California Raisins. Read on, before your quarter-life crisis hits.

1. Zack Morris, Screech, Lisa Turtle, and Mr. Belding

Before Saved by the Bell, a little show called Good Morning, Miss Bliss introduced us to the gang from Bayside High School...except it was called John F. Kennedy Junior High, and it was in Indianapolis, not California.

Miss Bliss starred Hayley Mills as the eponymous teacher, and it ran on the Disney Channel for one 13-episode season. The cast of characters was impressive, including the core of the later Saved by the Bell group. Jaleel White, who would play Steve Urkel in 1989's Family Matters, and Brian Austin Green, who starred in Beverly Hills, 90210, also appeared in the pilot. The Disney Channel dropped Miss Bliss after its first season, NBC picked it up and re-tooled it, and Saved by the Bell became a Saturday morning mainstay starting in 1989.

2. A Brief History of Time

Getty Images

On September 1, 1988, physicist Stephen Hawking unleashed the bestseller A Brief History of Time, exploring great questions about the universe in easily understandable language. While working on an early draft, Hawking was warned that for each equation in the text, the book's readership would be halved. So he compromised, including just one equation: Einstein's E = mc2.

The book went on to sell more than 10 million copies. In the tenth anniversary edition, Hawking wrote: "Nathan Myhrvold of Microsoft (a former post-doc of mine) remarked: I have sold more books on physics than Madonna has on sex." (To be fair, Madonna's Sex wasn't released until 1992.)

3. Photoshop

YouTube / j0han1

Before "Photoshop" became a verb, it was a piece of software designed by John Knoll to display grayscale images on a Macintosh computer's black-and-white screen. Knoll's brother John (who worked for Industrial Light & Magic, a division of Lucasfilm) suggested that the program could be an image editor, not just a viewer. So Knoll dutifully built Photoshop. The first 200-ish copies shipped in 1988, bundled with Barneyscan slide scanners. Adobe bought the rights, put the Knoll brothers to work, and the rest is history.

4. Sega Genesis

Sega ad courtesy of Fors Yard. See a larger version here.

Sega's two-year headstart on Nintendo in the 16-bit gaming wars began on October 29, 1988, when the Sega Genesis launched in the US and Japan. Though sales were initially dicey, the Genesis went on to become Sega's most successful console, largely thanks to a branding rework in 1991 that exchanged the original bundle game, Altered Beast, with the critically acclaimed new game Sonic the Hedgehog.

By the time Nintendo released the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in 1991, the Genesis had already formed a solid reputation as "the cool console," and Nintendo had to compete against a lower price point, a much larger game library, and a Sega ad campaign claiming "Genesis does what Nintendon't." The two battled through the entire 16-bit era, with Sega inching out Nintendo for the lead (in hardware sales, at least) most years, excluding 1994, when Donkey Kong Country released.

5. Girl Talk

Not even Jewel Staite escaped childhood without playing Girl Talk, the very pink, all-girl version of Truth or Dare that launched in 1988. (That's the Firefly and Stargate Atlantis actress in 1995, kissing and telling.) Thanks to Girl Talk's overwhelming popularity, girl-only spin-offs popped up over the next several years, including Milton Bradley's Mall Madness, 1989's Barbie Just Us Girls ("a game of style and challenge," but mostly just spinning and collecting cards), 1990's Pretty, Pretty Princess, and 1991's Electric Dream Phone.

6. The Morris Worm (Computer Virus)

Wikipedia

On November 2, 1988, the first large-scale worm (a form of computer virus) struck the Internet. Written by Robert Tappan Morris (or RTM for short), the Morris worm was designed to figure out the size of the internet by aggressively spreading to Internet-connected computers. The worm had a design problem that made it overzealous in its attacks; the net effect was that the worm ran rampant over systems across the Internet, often repeatedly infecting the same computer until it slowed to a crawl. Sysadmins disconnected from the Internet, cleaned up the worm's damage, and RTM became the first man convicted under 1984's Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

RTM later sold a startup to Yahoo! for tens of millions, received a Ph.D. from Harvard, and ultimately became a professor at MIT. So he's doing all right.

7. Dunk-a-Roos

How do you Dunk-a-Roos? The cookie-and-icing snack debuted in 1988, hot on the heels of Handi-Snacks (the cheese-and-pretzel version offered by Kraft) and remains on (most) supermarket shelves in the US. Though the cookies were all originally cinnamon-flavored and the icing only came in chocolate or vanilla, newer iterations include vanillla, graham or chocolate cookies with chocolate chip, rainbow sprinkle and various other limited-time icing flavors. The mascot was originally a Crocodile Dundee-esque kangaroo named Sydney, who was voiced by John Cameron Mitchell, the director of 2010's Rabbit Hole, for which Nicole Kidman scored an Oscar nomination. After a 1996 contest, the mascot became a different roo named Duncan.

8. Matilda

Roald Dahl's 1988 book introduced us to Matilda, the precocious daughter of sleazy car salesman Harry Wormwood and his unnamed wife, who find Matilda lacking in both charm and intelligence even though she's a genius and secret telekinetic. Matilda uses her powers (spoiler alert) to save beloved teacher Miss Honey from her overbearing aunt and tyrranical headmaster, Miss Trunchbull.

Dahl's story has been adapted for the screen (the 1996 film starred Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman and Mrs. Doubtfire's Mara Wilson), the stage (in a musical written by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin), and the radio (by way of a two-part BBC broadcast). If you'd like to relive part of Matilda at home but think building your own Pokey is probably a bad idea (it is), then consider making a real-life version of the Trunchbull's chocolate cake — you'll find instructions in Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes.

9. Prozac

Getty Images

Eli Lilly & Co. introduced Prozac to treat depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bulimia, and a host of other psychiatric ills. It became one of the best-selling drugs in history, racking up tens of billions of sales by 2001, the year that generic versions hit the market in the US. It was such a commonly prescribed drug that references to popping Prozac flooded pop culture in the 90s, including the books Prozac Diary and Prozac Nation.

Prozac's possible side effects include nausea, insomnia, anorexia, and anorgasmia. On the bright side, recent research indicates that it might also be an antiviral.

10. Don't Panic

Getty Images

Neil Gaiman was not a household name in 1988, when he released the book Don't Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Gaiman had previously written a biography of Duran Duran in 1984, a sort of joke book in 1985 featuring bad sci-fi quotes, and some early comics and short stories in 1987. But 1988 was Gaiman's year—Don't Panic was a biography of author Douglas Adams as well as a companion to Adams's work, and it marked the beginning of Gaiman's massive success as a writer (1989 would see his first Sandman comics).

Douglas Adams blurbed the book, saying "It's all devastatingly true—except the bits that are lies."

11. Music - The Traveling Wilburys

1988 saw the formation of a bunch of bands that would go on to rule the 90s: Boyz II Men, Barenaked Ladies, Blur, House of Pain, Mother Love Bone (featuring future members of Pearl Jam), Mudhoney, and Nine Inch Nails. But the biggest new group of the year was The Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup featuring Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty. Tragically, Orbison died two months after the Wilburys released their first album, and their second video (for "End of the Line") featured Orbison's lonely guitar in a rocking chair (he did live to participate in the "Handle With Care" video).

The term "Wilbury" came from George Harrison's recording sessions for Cloud Nine—he joked to the recording engineer that "we'll bury" recording mistakes in the mix. (To their credit, the Wilburys buried most of Dylan's vocals in the mix.)

Honorable mentions in the music category: Milli Vanilli, Mr. Big, and Crash Test Dummies were also formed in 1988. Rick Astley's single "Never Gonna Give You Up" was still topping American charts, despite being released the year before. (Nobody got the idea to perform a Rickroll until two decades later.) Guns 'n Roses had a string of hits, most notably "Sweet Child o' Mine." And as we mention elsewhere in this list, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" was a major hit.

12. Batman: The Killing Joke

Wikipedia

1988 brought us Batman: The Killing Joke, a graphic novel written by Alan Moore explaining the dark origin story of The Joker. Although Tim Burton didn't use Moore's story for his now-classic 1989 film Batman, the graphic novel was a huge motivator for the movie focusing on The Joker as Batman's primary enemy. Burton said:

"I was never a giant comic book fan, but I've always loved the image of Batman and the Joker. The reason I've never been a comic book fan—and I think it started when I was a child—is because I could never tell which box I was supposed to read. I don't know if it was dyslexia or whatever, but that's why I loved The Killing Joke, because for the first time I could tell which one to read. It's my favorite. It's the first comic I've ever loved. And the success of those graphic novels made our ideas more acceptable."

Heath Ledger was also given a copy of The Killing Joke as a character reference for his performance of The Joker in The Dark Knight.

13. Movies (Mostly Rain Man)


Getty Images

Rain Man ruled the box office and the Academy Awards for 1988, winning four Oscars, including Best Picture. The film started shooting just before the 1988 Writers Guild of America Strike, so screenwriters Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass couldn't visit the set during production (they won Best Original Screenplay anyway).

But while Raymond Babbitt was watching Wapner on The People's Court, the rest of us were enjoying a string of 80s-tastic movies, including Beaches, Beetlejuice, Big, Big Top Pee-Wee, Coming to America, Die Hard, The Land Before Time, My Neighbor Totoro, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

An honorable mention for best 1988 film goes to The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, which featured a memorable (if slightly embellished) interview in which Ozzy Osbourne cooked breakfast and gave career advice to future rockers.

14. TV Shows

It was a great year for television... but not for criminals. America's Most Wanted aired for the first time on 7 FOX stations in February, 1988. Within 4 days, profiled fugitive David James Roberts was captured thanks to tips from sharp-eyed viewers. A few weeks later the show was picked up on all FOX stations, and in 2008 the AMW team announced their 1000th captured criminal: a New York realtor named Dwight Smith.

While Americans were on the lookout for wayward baddies, Kevin Arnold was crushing hard on Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years, which debuted in January. To set the record straight, again: "Paul Pfeiffer" actor Josh Saviano is not Marilyn Manson. He's a merger and acquisitions lawyer in New York.

Other memorable shows that debuted in 1988: Roseanne, Murphy Brown, The Gong Show (syndicated weekday revival), Garfield and Friends, C.O.P.S., China Beach, and Yo! MTV Raps.

15. Oh, and MST3K!

In November, the first episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 aired on the Twin Cities UHF station KTMA-TV. The Satellite of Love (the name of the ship on which the show is set, inspired by a Lou Reed song) and the robots were all constructed in one night by the show's creator, Joel Hodgson, who built everything entirely of toys and Goodwill finds. The premise of the show changed quite a lot between the first and last episodes, but originally, Joel Robinson (played by Hodgson) was a janitor for Gizmonic Institute who was part of an evil experiment by mad scientists Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt. Their diabolical plan was to force as many terrible B movies on Joel as possible until he finally snapped. The torture took a while, though, because Joel didn't escape until season 5, when he was replaced by unwitting successor Mike Nelson. Joel (and later Mike) and the bots made an average of 700 comments during each movie.

16. He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper

RON WOLFSON/Landov

Speaking of rap, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince released their second studio album in March. He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper was the first-ever double-vinyl hip hop album, the first to win a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance (in 1989 for "Parents Just Don't Understand"), and led to Jeff Townes and Will Smith's first "serious" movie offers: they declined the lead roles in House Party, which were taken by Kid & Play.

It seems everyone loved "Parents Just Don't Understand," even Will's future wife, Jada Pinkett. Here she is in 1988 with fellow Baltimore School of the Arts alum and friend, Tupac Shakur:

(That clip is from the short-lived Keenan Ivory Wayans Show, which ran from August 1997 to March 1998.)

17. Koosh

Flickr user K Tempest Bradford/Wikimedia Commons

Developed in 1986 by Scott Stillinger for his kids, the Koosh ball was soon picked up by Hasbro. The rubbery toy took off when it was released in 1988, making its way onto the Christmas lists of thousands of kids in 1988. Each ball contains around 2,000 rubber filaments, and the name comes from the sound it makes when it lands.

18. Wild Cherry Pepsi

Getty Images

In 1988, Pepsi decided to tinker with their Cherry Cola Slice formula. The result was good, but too different from the original product to continue selling it under the same name. Goodbye, Cherry Cola Slice—hello Wild Cherry Pepsi (which was rebranded Pepsi Wild Cherry in 1995).

19. The Flowbee

While Flowbee's website has been updated at least once since 1988, the haircutting/vacuum cleaner apparatus remains largely unchanged at 25 years old. Your desire for feathered bangs may have, however.

20. Battle Chess

Tired of playing the game of kings using physical pieces and your boring old "imagination"? In 1988, Battle Chess changed the game, adding animated battle sequences (several referencing Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Raiders of the Lost Ark), along with sound effects and artificial intelligence, so you could match wits with your Amiga. Of course, those of us who'd seen Star Wars still yearned for Holochess.

21. Shamu One

Southwest Airlines

Few aviation gimmicks are as exciting to children as Southwest Airlines and Sea World San Antonio's collaboration, a Boeing 737 Classic painted to look like Shamu, Sea World's main attraction. Within the next decade, two more aircraft would receive the orca paint job and then all three would be replaced with newer model planes. In December 2012, Shamu took off and landed for the last time. (Sea World's "Shamu" is actually many killer whales; currently there are six different orca in the rotation.)

22. World AIDS Day

Getty Images

World AIDS Day was first held on December 1, 1988. Supporters wore the now-familiar red ribbon, and world leaders (including Pope John Paul II) marked the occasion with messages of support. In 2007, the Bush administration hung a two-story red ribbon from the North Portico of the White House to draw attention to the cause.

Each year, World AIDS Day has a theme, often focusing on a certain population, like men, women, or children living with AIDS. For the years 2011 to 2015, the theme is clear and aggressive: "Getting to Zero."

23. Pi Day

The first Pi Day was organized by physicist Larry Shaw of the San Francisco Exploratorium in 1988. On March 14, his colleagues and Exploratorium-goers were invited to march in circles and eat lots of pie. These days Pi Day is a somewhat bigger deal: In 2009, the House of Representatives passed HRES 224 recognizing March 14 as National Pi Day. (Get your 2014 Pi Day shopping done early in our store!)

24. Kids' Choice Awards

In 1988, Tony Danza hosted the first ever Kids' Choice Awards on Nickelodeon. Guest appearances included Debbie Gibson, Wil Wheaton, Marc Summers, Charles Barkley and Jeremy Miller, who played Ben Seaver on Growing Pains.

The first year's notable wins went to Beverly Hills Cop 2 (Favorite Movie) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (for Favorite Cartoon). Les Lye of You Can't Do That on Television was the celebrity slime recipient.

{You can watch the 1988 show in full on YouTube.)

25. Michael Cera

Getty Images

1988 was a good year for young actors: Michael Cera was born in Ontario, and went on to win our hearts in Arrested Development, Superbad, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. His birthday is June 7, so you still have time to get him a sweet card.

Other notable births in 1988:

  • Rupert Grint, aka Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter films
  • Haley Joel Osment, who famously saw dead people, but also played Forrest Gump's son in 1994
  • Sonny John Moore (aka Skrillex), who won three Grammys in 2011
  • Adele, whose age-themed albums (19 and 21) have led to record-breaking success in the music world (her full name is Adele Laurie Blue Adkins)

*

See Also

30 Things Turning 30 This Year

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
17 Things to Know About René Descartes
iStock
iStock

The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios