40 Fun Facts About the Most Popular American Baby Names of the Last 100 Years

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Baby naming trends come and go. Some names spike and then drop out of view while others stick around for years. The Social Security Administration's list of the top names over the last 100 years shows how many people have been given a particular name since 1917. Some names accrue numbers slowly, by maintaining a low level of popularity over a long period of time, and some rack up the numbers by being wildly popular for a few years. Boy names tend to be less variable than girl names, so their overall numbers are higher. By the numbers, the first six most popular names are boy names, with the most popular girl name first making an appearance at 7th place overall. The second most popular girl name comes in at 15th. Here are some other things to know about 40 of the most popular U.S. names of the last 100 years, organized into 20 boy and 20 girl names.

BOY NAMES

1. JAMES

The most popular boy name over the past 100 years is James. More than 4.5 million boys have been named James, nearly 3 percent of all boys born during that time. Though it has ranked as low as the 19th most popular name, it was number 1 from 1940-1952.

2. JOHN

John, like James, has stayed consistently popular for boys, though it has slid from number 1 to number 28 over the last 100 years. In 1923, more than 5 percent of all boy babies born that year were named John.

3. ROBERT

Like James and John, Robert has stayed consistently popular over the years. It hasn’t appeared in the top 10 since the end of the 1980s, though. In 1934 Robert, and its variations of Bobby and Bob, all made the top 100.

4. MICHAEL

Michael is the most common boy name for people currently alive. It has not been out of the top 10 names given to baby boys since 1943, and had an unbroken streak at number 1 from 1961 to 1998. In 2016 it was still ranked at number 8.

5. WILLIAM

William is another steady classic, like James, John, and Robert, that has maintained its consistent level of popularity. It did have a brief, minor dip in the 1980s and '90s, but it’s back on top again, or nearly, ranking as the number 3 name for boys, ahead of the other classics, in 2016.

6. DAVID

David has been another steady classic, but it only reached number 1 once, in 1960. But that was a big year for births, so almost 86,000 babies got the name David in that year alone. Dave was also a big hit that year.

7. RICHARD

The name Richard had its biggest year in 1947, and stayed in the top 10 until 1970. In 1959 there were also over 13,000 babies named Ricky, as well as thousands of Ricks.

8. JOSEPH

Joseph’s peak year was 1917, but it has been in the top 25 for the 100 years since. It has never reached number 1 though.

9. THOMAS

There were more than 45,000 baby boys named Thomas in 1955. Its popularity began to decline in the 1970s, but it remains one of the top 50 boy names.

10. CHARLES

Charles ranks 10th of all boy names over the last 100 years, with over 2 million total. It has maintained a steady general popularity, but hit its peak in 1929.

11. JOSHUA

Joshua is the 22nd most popular name of the past century, but it's notable in that it is the highest ranking name that was neither consistently popular over the whole time, nor a baby boomer name. Joshua didn’t break the top 100 names for any year until 1971, and it achieved peak popularity in 2006.

12. KEVIN

Kevin, the 23rd most popular name of the last 100 years, started to spike in popularity at the beginning of the baby boom, reaching a peak in 1963, when more than 30,000 baby boys got the name. It was the first in a string of popular Irish names ending in n, possibly establishing a preference for boy names ending in in/an/on that has continued through the current decade.

13. BRIAN

Brian, another Irish name ending in n, is the 24th most popular boy name overall. It was not particularly popular during the baby boom years, but peaked later in 1977.

14. JASON

Jason is a classic name from Greek mythology, but it was not commonly given to boys in the U.S. until it suddenly spread like wildfire in the 1970s. Its rise was swift, high, and relatively short, making it, according to certain measures, the trendiest boy name of the past 100 years.

15. RYAN

Ryan, a common Irish last name, took off as a first name in the U.S. in 1971, the year after the hit movie Love Story was released, starring Ryan O’Neal. The name Jennifer, a character name in the movie, took off at the same time and went on to dominate the girl name list for years. Ryan also fit it well with the trend toward other boy names ending in n, like Brian and Jason.

16. GARY

Gary is the 31st most popular boy name of the last century. It peaked during the boomer years, boosted by the popularity of actor Gary Cooper.

17. JACOB

Jacob was a rather old-fashioned sounding name when it cracked the top 100 in the mid 1970s, but after a 14-year run as the number 1 baby name for boys starting in 1999, it established itself as the name of a new generation. Just within that time frame, it became the overall 32nd most popular name of the last 100 years.

18. SCOTT

Scott is the 39th most popular boy name of the last 100 years. It’s notable because it was primarily a surname until it began to rise in popularity as a first name in the 1950s and '60s. Many last names became popular first names in the following years (Tyler, Jackson, Cooper, etc.).

19. ALEXANDER

Alexander, which peaked in popularity in 2009, is the 47th most popular boy name of the last 100 years. Unlike most popular boy names, which tend to have one or two syllables and begin with a consonant, Alexander starts with a vowel and has a whopping four syllables.

20. NOAH

Noah is the current number 1 boy name (as of 2016), and though it only broke the top 100 starting in 1995, it already ranks 85th on the most popular of all time. It's part of a newer trend toward biblical names ending in a vowel sound, like Elijah, Jonah, and Isaiah.

GIRL NAMES

1. MARY

The most popular girl name over the past 100 years is Mary. Almost 3.5 million girls have been named Mary—about 2 percent of all girls born during that time. It was the number 1 or 2 name from the beginning of record keeping until 1965, when it started to slide. In 2016 it was ranked at 127.

2. PATRICIA

After Mary, the second most popular name for girls over the past 100 years is Patricia. Though it never made number 1 for any particular year, it stayed close to it through the baby boom years, from 1946-1964. Over 53,000 baby girls were named Patricia in 1952.

3. JENNIFER

Jennifer had a spectacular post-baby-boom rise to the number 1, and it stayed in that position from 1970 until 1984, the year of its peak popularity. It probably got its long-term boost from the 1970 film Love Story, starring Ali MacGraw as a beautiful, tragic character bearing the name.

4. ELIZABETH

Though the name Elizabeth had its year of greatest popularity in the early 1900s, it has stayed consistent over the last 100 years, resisting and weathering trends, hovering near the top 10, and neither spiking nor dropping off in popularity.

5. LINDA

In contrast to Elizabeth, the window of popularity for Linda was relatively brief. It was mostly confined to the baby boom years, but its spike was so dramatic that it qualifies as the trendiest baby name in American history. The number of Lindas rose sharply, putting the name at number 1 in 1947, after a Buddy Clark song, "Linda," topped the charts. It fell just as sharply after a few years, and by 1978 was down to 100th place.

6. BARBARA

In the early Hollywood film era, glamorous actresses like Barbara La Marr, Barbara Bedford, Barbara Kent, and Barbara Stanwyck gave the name Barbara a boost. It stayed in the top 10 from 1927-1958, but dropped off quickly after that.

7. SUSAN

Susan, like Linda and Patricia, was a quintessential baby boom name. At its peak in 1960, over 39,000 baby girls were named Susan.

8. JESSICA

Jessica’s rise to popularity started a little after the Jennifer craze began, but it was probably bolstered by Jennifer and other popular J names like Jason and Joshua. It stayed in the top 10 through the 1980s and '90s.

9. MARGARET

Margaret was far more popular in 1917 than it is 100 years later, but its decline in popularity has been very slow and gradual, meaning that although it hasn’t made the top 10 for decades, it manages to rack up enough numbers year by year to put it at number 9 overall for the century. Over 1 million baby girls have been named Margaret.

10. SARAH

Sarah is another slow-burn classic, varying in popularity a bit over the years, but never swinging wildly. It performed most modestly during the baby boom years. It reached its peak in 1993, when over 24,000 baby girls were named Sarah.

11. KAREN

Though it did first rise from seemingly nowhere at the end of the 1930s, Karen belongs to the latter half of the baby boom years, peaking in 1965. It had a slower decline than other baby boom names like Linda and Susan.

12. ASHLEY

Ashley is the 17th most popular name for girls of the past 100 years, but it didn't even crack the top 1000 until 1964. It was traditionally a boy name, notably as the name of Scarlett O'Hara’s love interest in the hugely popular novel and film Gone with the Wind. It got a big boost as a girl's name in the early 1980s, when it was the name of a female character on the soap opera The Young and the Restless. The name stayed in the top 10 until 2005.

13. CAROL

Carol is another name that started as a boy name; it's a version of Charles. It became popular as a girl name in the 1920s and reached peak popularity 1941.

14. MICHELLE

Michelle had a huge spike in popularity to 4th place in 1966, after the Beatles song “Michelle” became a hit. It stayed in the top 10 for 15 years, making it the 21st most popular girl name of the last 100 years.

15. EMILY

Emily spent over a decade as the number 1 girl name, from 1996-2007. As of last year it was still in the top 10, and it’s become the 22nd most popular name of the past century.

16. SHIRLEY

Shirley, like Linda, was another trendy name, rising quickly to a high level of popularity and then falling off. It reached its peak in 1936, when Shirley Temple was a child superstar and over 35,000 baby girls were given the name.

17. JACQUELINE

In 1960 John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for president. The next year the name of his glamorous wife shot up almost 50 places to become the 37th most popular name for girls. The name reached a peak in 1964, after Kennedy’s assassination, when almost 12,000 girls were named Jacqueline. It never reached top 10, or even the top 30, but it stayed popular enough to become the 72nd most popular girl name of the last 100 years.

18. MADISON

The name Madison was not on any list of girl names until the movie Splash came out in 1984. In the film, a mermaid (played by Daryl Hannah) finds her way to New York, where she decides to take the name Madison after seeing a street sign for Madison Avenue. The movie was a hit and so was the name. By 2001 it had become the number 2 name for girls, and it's become the 90th most popular name over the last 100 years.

19. KAYLA

A fictional character also gave rise to Kayla, the 100th most popular name of the last 100 years. According to the baby-naming guide Beyond Jennifer & Jason by Linda Rosenkrantz, the spark that started rocketing Kayla up the name list in 1982 was the introduction of a character by that name on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. It spent 17 years in the top 20.

20. EMMA

Emma is the current number 1 name for girls (as of 2016) and the 50th most popular girl name of the past 100 years. It was also popular in the year 1900, but it declined in popularity to a low of 461 on the list for 1976. It then started gradually rising to return to the top 20, where it's now been since 1999. Names go in and out of style, but Emma proves that they can go out and come back after a long absence.

The 12 Men Who Walked on the Moon

NASA/Newsmakers via Getty Images Plus
NASA/Newsmakers via Getty Images Plus

If you were born after the Apollo program, and maybe even if you remember those days, it seems almost unbelievable that NASA sent manned missions to the moon 239,000 miles away. People continue to express sadness at the fact that the Apollo lunar missions were so long ago, and that soon there will be no one left alive who actually went to the moon. we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, now is the perfect time to remember—or get to know—the only 12 people who ever walked on a body other than planet Earth.

1. Neil Armstrong


NASA/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Navy test pilot, engineer, and Korean War veteran Neil Armstrong left the Navy in 1952, but continued in the Naval Reserve. He worked as an experimental test pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) beginning in 1955, which evolved into NASA. Armstrong was assigned as an astronaut in 1962, and flew on the Gemini 8 mission in 1966, where he performed the first successful space docking procedure. Armstrong was selected to be the first man to walk on the moon, as the Apollo 11 mission was planned, for several reasons: he was the commander of the mission, he didn't have a big ego, and the door of the lunar lander was on his side. Although the first steps on the moon are what he will always be known for, Armstrong considered the mission's biggest accomplishment was landing the lunar module. He later said,

Pilots take no special joy in walking: pilots like flying. Pilots generally take pride in a good landing, not in getting out of the vehicle.

Armstrong along with his crew were honored with parades, awards, and acclaim after their return to Earth, but Armstrong always gave credit to the entire NASA team for the Apollo moon missions. He resigned from NASA in 1971 and became a professor of of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati for eight years. Armstrong served on the boards of many corporations and foundations, but gradually withdrew from publicity tours and autograph signings. He didn't particularly care for fame.

Neil Armstrong died on August 25, 2012, at age 82. His family released a statement that concluded:

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

2. Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin

Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., Lunar Module Pilot, Is Photographed Walking Near The Lunar Module During The Apollo 11 Extravehicular Activity
Nasa/Getty Images

After graduating third in his class at West Point in 1951 with a degree in science, Buzz Aldrin flew 66 combat missions as an Air Force pilot in the Korean War. Then he earned a PhD at MIT. Aldrin joined NASA as an astronaut in 1963. In 1966 he flew in the Gemini 12 spacecraft on the final Gemini mission.

Aldrin accompanied Neil Armstrong on the first moon landing in the Apollo 11 mission, becoming the second person, and now the first of the living astronauts, to set foot on the moon. Aldrin had taken a home Communion kit with him, and took Communion on the lunar surface, but did not broadcast the fact. Aldrin retired from NASA in 1971 and from the Air Force in 1972. He later suffered from clinical depression and wrote about the experience, but recovered with treatment. Aldrin has co-authored five books about his experiences and the space program, plus two novels. Aldrin, who is now 89 years old, continues to work to promote space exploration.

3. Charles "Pete" Conrad

Astronaut Charles 'Pete' Conrad stands next to the Surveyor 3 lunar lander on the Moon, during NASA's Apollo 12 lunar landing mission, November 1969. The unmanned Surveyor 3 landed on the moon in April 1967
Astronaut Charles 'Pete' Conrad stands next to the Surveyor 3 lunar lander on the Moon, during NASA's Apollo 12 lunar landing mission, November 1969.
Space Frontiers/Getty Images

Pete Conrad was a Princeton graduate and Navy test pilot before entering the astronaut corps in 1962. He flew on the Gemini V mission and was commander of Gemini XI. Conrad was commander of the Apollo 12 mission, launched during a lightning storm which temporarily knocked out the command module's power shortly after liftoff. When Conrad stepped onto the moon, he said,

Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me.

Conrad later flew on the Skylab 2 mission as commander with the first crew to board the space station. He retired from NASA and the Navy in 1973, after which he worked for American Television and Communications Company and then for McDonnell Douglas.

Pete Conrad died on July 8, 1999 in a motorcycle accident. He was 69.

4. Alan L. Bean

Astronaut Alan L Bean, the Lunar Module pilot, carries part of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) to the deployment site during the first EVA (extravehicular activity) on NASA's Apollo 12 lunar landing mission, 19th November 1969
Space Frontiers/Getty Images

Apollo astronaut Alan Bean was the fourth man to walk on the moon, during the Apollo 12 mission in 1969. He was the lunar module pilot. Bean was also the commander of the Skylab Mission II in 1973, which spent 59 days in flight. Altogether, Bean logged 1,671 hours and 45 minutes in space. Bean is the only artist to have visited another world, so his paintings of the lunar environment have the authenticity of an eyewitness. He retired from the Navy with the rank of Captain, but continued to train astronauts at NASA until 1981, when he retired to devote time to his art.

Bean died on May 26, 2018 at the age of 86.

5. Alan Shepard

1971: Astronaut Alan B Shepard holds the pole of a US flag on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 14 mission.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alan Shepard was a bona-fide space pioneer who cemented his spot in history long before the Apollo program. A U.S. Navy test pilot, he was selected as one of the original Mercury astronauts in 1959. Shepard was the first American launched into space aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft on May 5, 1961. His suborbital flight reached an altitude of 116 miles.

Barred from flight during the Gemini program because of an inner ear problem, Shepard had the problem fixed surgically and was assigned as commander of the Apollo 14 mission to the moon. He was responsible for the most accurate lunar module landing ever, and spent 9 hours and 17 minutes exploring the moon's surface outside the module. During that time, he famously knocked a couple of golf balls with a six-iron attached to his sample-collecting tool. With one arm (due to the space suit), he managed to drive further than professional golfers on Earth could ever hope to, thanks to the moon's lower gravity.

Before and after his Apollo mission, Shepard served as Chief of the Astronaut Office. He retired from NASA and the Navy in 1974, having achieved the rank of Rear Admiral. Shepard went into private business, serving on the board of several corporations and foundations. He founded Seven Fourteen Enterprises, an umbrella corporation named after his two space missions. Shepard wrote a book with Deke Slayton, Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon. Shepard compared his book to The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, saying, "'We wanted to call ours 'The Real Stuff,' since his was just fiction.''

Alan Shepard died on July 21, 1998 at the age of 74.

6. Edgar D. Mitchell

November 1970: Apollo 14 Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell with the Apollo 14 emblem.
NASA/Keystone/Getty Images

Ed Mitchell joined the Navy in 1952 and became a test pilot. Then he earned a PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT. NASA selected him for the astronaut corps in 1966. In January of 1971, Mitchell flew on Apollo 14 as lunar module pilot, becoming the sixth man to walk on the lunar surface. He retired in 1972 and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which explores psychic and paranormal events. Mitchell gained some notoriety after NASA for his views on UFOs, as he has asserted that the government is covering up evidence at Roswell. His information, he admitted, came secondhand from various sources.

Mitchell died on February 4, 2016, the eve of the 45th anniversary of his lunar landing.

7. David Scott

Astronaut David Scott gives salute beside the U.S. flag July 30, 1971 on the moon during the Apollo 15 mission.
NASA/Liaison via Getty Images Plus

David Scott joined the Air Force after graduating from West Point. Selected as an astronaut in 1963, he flew with Neil Armstrong on the Gemini 8 mission and was command module pilot on Apollo 9. Scott then went to the moon on Apollo 15, which landed on the lunar surface on July 30, 1971. It was the first mission to land near mountains. Scott and Jim Irwin spent 18 hours exploring the lunar landscape in the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the first mission to use such a vehicle to travel on the moon.

Scott became famous for the "postage stamp incident," in which he took unauthorized postage stamp covers to the moon with the intent to sell them afterwards. NASA had turned a blind eye to such activities before, but publicity over the matter caused them to discipline Scott and he never flew again. Scott retired from NASA in 1977 and served as a consultant for several movies and TV shows about the space program. He also wrote a book with former cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race.

David Scott is 87 years old.

8. James B. Irwin

Astronaut James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot, uses a scoop in making a trench in the lunar soil during Apollo 15 extravehicular activity (EVA). Mount Hadley rises approximately 14,765 feet (about 4,500 meters) above the plain in the background
NASA/Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Air Force test pilot James Irwin became an astronaut in 1966. He was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 15 in 1971. His 18.5 hours of lunar surface exploration included gathering many samples of rocks. The astronauts' medical conditions were being monitored from Earth, and they noticed Irwin developing symptoms of heart trouble. As he was breathing 100% oxygen and under lower gravity than on Earth, mission control decided he was in the best environment possible for such irregularity -under the circumstances. Irwin's heart rhythm was normal by the time Apollo 15 returned to Earth, but he had a heart attack a few months later. Irwin retired from NASA and the Air Force (with the rank of Colonel) in 1972 and founded the High Flight Foundation in order to spread the Christian gospel during the last twenty years of his life. He notably took several groups on expeditions to Mt. Ararat to search for Noah's Ark.

James Irwin died on August 8, 1991, of a heart attack. He was 61 years old.

9. John Watts Young

Astronaut John W Young, co-pilot of the NASA Gemini 3 mission, inspecting his spacesuit at the Complex 16 suiting-up area, March 23rd 1965.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Young is so far the longest serving astronaut in NASA history. He was selected as an astronaut in 1962 and his first space flight was in 1965 aboard Gemini 3 with Gus Grissom. He achieved some notoriety at that time by smuggling a corned beef sandwich onto the flight, angering NASA. But Young went on to complete a total of six space missions in the Gemini, Apollo, and the space shuttle programs. He orbited the moon on the Apollo 10 mission, then was commander of the Apollo 16 mission and became the ninth person to walk on the moon. Young was also commander of the first space shuttle flight in 1981 and returned for shuttle flight 9 in 1983, which deployed the first Spacelab module. Young was also scheduled for another space shuttle flight in 1986, which was delayed after the Challenger disaster, so the veteran astronaut never made his seventh flight. Young finally retired from NASA after 42 years of service in 2004.

John Young died on January 5, 2018 at the age of 87 following complications with pneumonia.

10. Charles M. Duke Jr.

Astronaut Charles Duke was capcom during the Apollo 11 mission. His is the voice you recall saying, "Roger, Twank... Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot!" when the lunar module landed on the moon. Duke also made history by catching German measles while training in the backup crew for the Apollo 13 mission, exposing the crew to the disease and causing Ken Mattingly to be replaced by Jack Swigart on that terrifying spaceflight. Duke went to the moon (with Mattingly as command module pilot) on the Apollo 16 mission in April of 1972. He retired from NASA in 1975 having reached the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force, and founded Duke Investments. Duke also became a Christian and a lay minister to prison inmates.

Charles Duke is 83 years old.

11. Harrison "Jack" Schmitt

Lunar Module Pilot Harrison H Schmitt collects geological samples on the Moon during his EVA (extravehicular activity) on NASA's Apollo 17 lunar landing mission, 12th December 1972.
Space Frontiers/Getty Images

Jack Schmitt was a geologist first, and trained as a pilot only after becoming a NASA astronaut. In fact, he was only the second civilian to fly into space, after Neil Armstrong, who was a veteran at the time of his flights. Schmitt was assigned to fly to the moon on the Apollo 18 mission, but when the Apollo 18 and 19 missions were cancelled in September of 1970, the scientific community lobbied to have Schmitt reassigned to Apollo 17 (replacing Joe Engle) as lunar module pilot. He was the first scientist in outer space. On the Apollo 17 mission, he and Gene Cernan spent three days on the lunar surface (a record) and drove their Lunar Roving Vehicle around collecting samples, conducting experiments, and leaving measuring instruments behind. Schmitt and Cernan gathered 250 pounds of lunar material to take back.

After resigning from NASA in 1975, Schmitt, a Republican, was elected Senator for New Mexico and served from 1977 to 1983. He became an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and lives in Silver City, New Mexico. In recent years, Dr. Schmitt's scientific background and political leanings have kept him in the spotlight as he has said that the concept of climate change is "a red herring," and that environmentalism is linked with communism.

Jack Schmitt is 84 years old.

12. Eugene E. Cernan

NASA astronaut Eugene Cernan, Commander of the Apollo 17 lunar mission, is welcomed back to Earth by a US Navy Pararescueman, after splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, 19th December 1972
NASA/Getty Images

As a Navy pilot, Gene Cernan logged over 5,000 hours flying time. He was accepted into the astronaut program in 1963. Cernan's first space flight was on Gemini IX in 1966, in which he conducted extravehicular activities (a space walk), followed by the Apollo 10 mission in May of 1969, which orbited the moon. Cernan was assigned commander of the Apollo 17 mission before anyone knew it would be the last Apollo mission. Even after the Apollo program was cut, no one knew for sure that travel to the moon would be abandoned for decades. When Schmitt and Cernan boarded their lunar module for the last time on December 13th, 1972, Cernan said:

"I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."

Cernan retired from the Navy and from NASA in 1976. He went on to found an aerospace technology firm, and wrote a book about his experiences as an astronaut. He also contributed his talents to ABC-TV as a commentator during shuttle flights and has made appearances on various space specials. In September of 2011, Cernan testified before Congress on the future of the space program.

The space program has never been an entitlement, it's an investment in the future - an investment in technology, jobs, international respect and geo-political leadership, and perhaps most importantly in the inspiration and education of our youth. Those best and brightest minds at NASA and throughout the multitudes of private contractors, large and small, did not join the team to design windmills or redesign gas pedals, but to live their dreams of once again taking us where no man has gone before.

Gene Cernan died on January 16, 2017.

This story has been updated for 2019.

5 Painless Facts About Operation

Hasbro via Amazon
Hasbro via Amazon

For more than 50 years, players have had fun practicing medicine without a license in Operation. The popular tabletop game tasks amateur surgeons with extracting game pieces—foreign objects and body parts—using tweezers without slipping and activating a buzzer that lights up the patient’s nose. (This procedure, which looks to deprive the man of all his important innards, is seemingly performed without anesthesia.) Check out some facts on the game’s history, including its more recent ailments and how it inspired a real-life operation.

1. Operation started as a college project.

John Spinello was an industrial design student at the University of Illinois in the early 1960s. In class one day, he was instructed by his professor to design a game or toy. Remembering an ill-advised moment when he had stuck his finger into a light socket as a child, Spinello came up with a box that had a mild electrical current created by one positive and one negative plate a quarter-inch apart. When players tried to guide a probe through the box’s grooves, they had to be careful not to touch the sides. If they did, the probe would complete the circuit and they’d activate a buzzer.

The game was a hit with Spinello’s fellow students, and Spinello decided to show it to his godfather, Sam Cottone, who worked at a toy design firm named Marvin Glass and Associates. Marvin Glass loved the game and paid Spinello $500 (the equivalent of a little more than $4000 today) for the rights, as well as a promise of a job upon his graduation in 1965. Spinello got the money but no job—not right away, anyway. He finally joined at the company in 1976.

2. Operation was originally named Death Valley.

Spinello had created an intriguing idea for a buzzer-based game, but initially, there was no clear premise. Cottone suggested the box and probe take on a desert theme, where players would extract water from holes in the ground. The working title was Death Valley. When Milton Bradley bought the game rights from Marvin Glass and Associates, one of their designers, Jim O’Connor, suggested they switch from a probe to a pair of tweezers in order to actually extract small items from the holes. The setting was changed from a desert to an operating theater, and Operation was released in 1965.

3. Cavity Sam got a new diagnosis in 2004.

For decades, the various ailments of Cavity Sam—a funny bone, a broken heart, etc.—remained unchanged. In 2004, Hasbro introduced the first addition to his laundry list of complaints with a diagnosis of Brain Freeze, represented by an ice cream cone waiting for extraction from his head. Fans of the game were able to vote online for Sam's first new ailment: Brain Freeze beat out Growling Stomach and Tennis Elbow with 54 percent of the vote. Later versions have added Burp Bubbles and flatulent sound effects for an ailment dubbed Toxic Gas. Hasbro has also offered licensed versions of the game, including boards based on the Toy Story and Shrek franchises.

4. The inventor of Operation didn’t make any money off Operation.

In 2014, word circulated that Spinello was in need of oral surgery that would cost around $25,000. Because he had sold the rights to Operation for just $500, he had not received any royalties from sales of the game. Fortunately, a round of crowdfunding allowed him to get the procedure he needed. Hasbro, which bought Milton Bradley, also donated to the effort by buying Spinello’s original prototype.

5. Operation inspired a real-life operation that has helped thousands of people.

Surgeon Andrew Goldstone was a fan of Operation as a child. When he got older, he took the game’s premise to heart. Goldstone noticed that thyroid surgeries were risky due to the thyroid’s proximity to the nerves of the vocal cords. A small slip could damage the cords, causing hoarseness or airway obstruction. Goldstone thought surgeons should have a buzzer similar to the one in the game that alerted them when they got too close. He applied an electrode to the airway tube used during general anesthesia. If a surgeon touched the nerves of the vocal cords with a probe, a signal would pass to the electrode and a buzzer would sound. Goldstone sold the technology back in 1991. It’s been used in thousands of thyroid surgeries since. Unfortunately, the patient’s nose does not light up.

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