12 Things You Might Not Know About Mark Twain

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mark Twain is widely considered the author of the first great American novel—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but his rollicking tales aren’t the only legacy he left behind. His poignant quotes and witticisms have been told and retold (sometimes erroneously) over the last century and a half, and his volume of work speaks for itself. Over the course of his legendary career, Twain—real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens—wrote more than a dozen novels plus countless short stories and essays and still found time to invent new products, hang out with famous scientists, and look after a house full of cats.

Today, on the 183rd anniversary of Twain’s birth in Florida, Missouri, we’ve compiled a list of things you might not know about the famous humorist, satirist, and storyteller.

1. His pen name is a nautical reference.

Like many of history’s literary greats, Mark Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) decided to assume an alias early on in his writing career. He tried out a few different names—Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and, more plainly, Josh—before settling on Mark Twain, which means two fathoms (12 feet) deep in boating jargon. He got the idea while working as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River—a job he held for four years until the Civil War broke out in 1861, putting a halt to commerce. (However, another popular theory holds that he earned the nickname in a bar. According to reports in a couple of 19th-century newspapers, he’d walk into a pub and call out “mark twain!,” prompting the bartender to take a piece of chalk and make two marks on a wall for twain—two—drinks. Twain denied this version of events, though.)

2. In addition to being a steamboat pilot, he also worked as a miner.

Shortly after his stint on The Big Muddy, Twain headed west with his brother to avoid having to fight in the war. He took up work as a miner in Virginia City, Nevada, but the job wasn't for him. (He described it as "hard and long and dismal.") Fortunately for Twain, he didn’t have to work there long. In 1862, he was offered his first writing job for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he covered crime, politics, mining, and culture.

3. A story he heard in a bar led to his “big break.”

An old photo of the Angels Hotel
Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1864, Twain headed to Calaveras County, California in hopes of striking gold as a prospector (he didn’t). However, it was during his time here that he heard the bartender of the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp share an incredulous story about a frog-jumping contest. Twain recounted the tale in his own words in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was published in 1865 in The New York Saturday Press and went on to receive national acclaim.

4. It took him seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

A cover of an old copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Twain started writing the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, but he wasn’t too pleased with his progress. After writing about 400 pages, he told a friend he liked it "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript. He put the project on the back burner for several years and finally finished it in 1883 following a burst of inspiration.

5. He invented a board game.

While Twain was putting off writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was busy working on a game he dubbed Memory Builder. It was originally supposed to be an outdoor game to help his children learn about England’s monarchs, but he ended up turning it into a board game to improve its chances of selling. However, after two years of work, it was still too convoluted to be marketable and required a vast knowledge of historical facts and dates. That didn’t stop him from patenting the game, though.

6. He also created "improved" scrapbooks and suspenders.

Memory Builder wasn't Twain's only invention; he also patented two other products. One was inspired by his love of scrapbooking, while the other came about from his hatred of suspenders. He designed a self-adhesive scrapbook that works like an envelope, which netted him about $50,000 in profits. His “improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments” also ended up being useful, but for an entirely different purpose than Twain originally intended. According to The Atlantic, “This clever invention only caught on for one snug garment: the bra. For those with little brassiere experience, not a button, nor a snap, but a clasp is all that secures that elastic band, which holds up women's breasts. So not-so-dexterous ladies and gents, you can thank Mark Twain for that."

7. Nikola Tesla helped "cure" Twain’s constipation.

A photograph of Mark Twain holding a vacuum lamp, with Nikola Tesla in the background
Mark Twain holds a vacuum lamp in Nikola Tesla's lab in 1894. Tesla's face can be seen in the background.
Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Iconic scientist/futurist Nikola Tesla and Twain were brought together by their mutual interests. Twain had an affinity for science and technology, while Tesla had read some of Twain’s works while recovering from an illness as a child. The story goes that one time, while the the two men were hanging out and tinkering around in Tesla's lab, Twain stood on a vibrating plate called an electro-mechanical oscillator that Tesla was investigating for rejuvenating powers. It ended up working as a laxative and “[shook] the poop out of Twain,” author and Tesla biographer W. Bernard Carlson told PBS. He only lasted about 90 seconds on the device before having to make a run for the toilet. This would generally be bad news, but not for Twain, who suffered from bouts of constipation for years.

8. Thomas Edison filmed Twain at his home.

Only one video of Twain exists, and it was shot by none other than his close friend, Thomas Edison. The footage was captured in 1909—the year before the author died—at Twain’s estate in Redding, Connecticut. He’s seen sporting a light-colored suit and his usual walrus mustache, and one scene shows him with his daughters, Clara and Jean. On a separate occasion that same year, Edison recorded Twain as he read stories into a phonograph, but those audio clips were destroyed in a fire. No other recording of Twain’s voice exists.

9. He did wear white suits, but not as often as you might think.

Mark Twain standing near a window while wearing a white suit and smoking a pipe
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

When you think of Mark Twain, you probably picture him in an all-white suit with a cigar or pipe hanging from his lips. It’s true that he was photographed in a white suit on several occasions, but he didn’t start this habit until later in life. According to The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, “In December 1906, he wore a white suit while appearing before a congressional committee regarding copyright. He did this for dramatic emphasis. Several times after that he wore white out of season for effect.” He also refused to trade his white clothes for “shapeless and degrading black ones” in the winter, no matter how cold it got. So take that, people who subscribe to the “no white after Labor Day” rule.

10. At one point, he had 19 cats.

Twain really, really liked cats—so much so that he had 19 of them at one time. And if he was traveling, he would “rent” cats to keep him company. In fact, he had a much higher opinion of felines than humans, remarking, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” He also had a talent for coming up with some great cat names; Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, Zoroaster, Soapy Sal, Pestilence, Bambino, and Satan were just a few of the kitties in his brood.

11. He probably didn’t say that thing you think he said.

Twain is one of the most misquoted authors in history. According to one quote wrongfully attributed to him, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” What Twain actually said was, “[He] was endowed with a stupidity which by the least little stretch would go around the globe four times and tie.” There are many, many examples of these, and you can read more about them here and here.

12. He accurately predicted when he would die.

When he was born on November 30, 1835, Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth. It appears roughly every 75 years, and Twain predicted he would die the next time it graced the sky. As he put it in 1909, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.” He ended up passing away at his Connecticut home on April 21, 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky once again.

12 Back-to-School Products to Add to Your Shopping List

Kritchanut/iStock via Getty Images
Kritchanut/iStock via Getty Images

Before you know it, your long days (and often longer nights) will be booked with group projects, research papers, and probably some social events, too. It can be difficult to adjust to the sudden onslaught of new responsibilities that come during back-to-school season, but it can help if you feel prepared. Take a look at our 2019 must-have school supplies list to ensure that you’re well-equipped for whatever the fall semester throws at you.

1. Rocketbook Everlast Fusion; $35-$37

Rocketbook everlast fusion
Amazon

Do yourself and the environment a favor and check out the Rocketbook Everlast Fusion, a notebook with 42 reusable pages that will prevent you from ever having to buy another sheet of paper. With seven different page templates for planning, listing, goal-setting, note-taking, sketching, scheduling, and sharing big ideas, the Rocketbook is perfect for students of all ages and disciplines. It comes with one erasable Pilot FriXion pen, and you can also use any other Pilot FriXion utensils on it, markers and highlighters included. What happens when you’ve written on all 42 pages and you’d like to save your work? Simply scan your pages with the free Rocketbook app and upload them to the cloud service of your choice—Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, Slack, iCloud, and more. You can get the executive-sized, 6-inch-by-8.8-inch Rocketbook for $35, or the regular letter-sized, 8.5-inch-by-11-inch version for $37.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Bob Ross Agenda; $16

Bob Ross agenda
Amazon

Because Bob Ross understands the importance of going with the flow, this calendar agenda lists only the days of the week, but no dates. Don’t feel like writing anything down in October? Skip it completely without the guilt of seeing blank pages in your planner. Each two-page spread pairs the days of the week on one side with a picturesque, tranquil Bob Ross painting on the other. You can also personalize your calendar entries with Bob Ross-themed stickers included in the back of the agenda, featuring catchphrases like “Be a gentle whisper,” “Just relax and watch it happen,” and “Let’s get crazy!”

Buy it: Amazon

3. Wild Rose Large Planner; $37

papersource wild rose large planner
Paper Source

For those happy to adhere to a date-specific planner, here’s a lovely gold-accented floral option from Paper Source. The 7-inch-by-8.5-inch agenda includes both monthly and weekly calendar pages, so you can see the big-picture overview of your month as well as your day-by-day tasks. There are pages for notes, important dates, and contacts, plus a pocket folder, ruler, and quotes to inspire you. And, because we all love a bit of decoration, there are sticker sheets in the back that feature dainty doodles of flowers, champagne glasses, and more.

Buy it: Paper Source

4. Bluetooth Portable Keyboard; $45-$55

Bluetooth plugable portable foldable keyboard
Amazon

Unburden yourself (and your possibly overstuffed tote bag) from the need to carry around both your tablet and laptop by investing in this portable Bluetooth keyboard that folds into a package smaller than a paperback book and has separate compatibility modes for Android, iOS, and Windows. You only have to charge it once every few weeks, but don’t worry about forgetting—you can always plug it right into your device with the included USB cord. The handy gadget also comes with a case, which doubles as a stand for your electronic device. Though the 11.5-inch-long standard-sized keyboard might be the first choice for those with standard-sized fingers, there’s also a 10-inch compact option for fans of especially miniature things.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Park Foundation Water Bottle; $40

National Parks Foundation water bottle
DICK'S Sporting Goods

These hip Hydro Flask water bottles are each decorated with a design of one of America’s most cherished national parks, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Joshua Tree, and Olympic National Parks. The 21-ounce, stainless-steel bottles feature double-walled vacuum insulation that will not only keep your beverage hot for up to 12 hours or cold for 24, but will also prevent condensation from forming on the bottle and soaking whatever park pamphlets you’ve got tucked inside your backpack.

Buy it: DICK’S Sporting Goods

6. Herschel Backpack; $56-$80

herschel navy backpack
Amazon

Herschel backpacks have become a standard for students, professionals, and practically all other people, in part because there’s a color or pattern to match every unique personality. In addition to representing your individuality, they’ll also last you many years, keep your shoulders comfortable with padded straps, and provide you with the perfect amount of space to store your laptop, schoolbooks, case files, overnight toiletries, and snacks. Peruse Amazon’s extensive collection to find out which one best fits you.

Buy it: Amazon

7. PacSafe Anti-Theft Backpack; $130

pacsafe anti-theft backpack
Luggage Designers

If you’ve ever decided to crank out an essay or project in a café, you’re probably familiar with the quandary of needing a bathroom break but not wanting to lose your seat or leave your belongings unattended. Instead of asking a potentially untrustworthy stranger if they can watch your stuff, try PacSafe’s anti-theft backpack, which boasts lockable zippers and straps, so you can fasten your backpack right to your table; the fabric and straps contain wire mesh, so nobody will be able to cut them (without some serious tools, that is). The Nylon backpack can fit a 15-inch laptop and includes several inside pockets to help you stay organized; you can also detach the straps and carry it like a small briefcase using the handle on the side.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Syver Wireless Speaker and Earbuds; $100

wicked audio syver bluetooth speaker and earbuds
Wicked Audio

Music-streaming services like Spotify make it possible for you to create an epic soundtrack for your life virtually everywhere you go, whether it’s a simple walk between classes or a backyard barbecue with your roommates and 50 of your closest friends. Check out Wicked Audio’s Syver, a two-in-one device that includes a Bluetooth speaker and wireless earbuds so you can toggle seamlessly between personal listening and party listening. Enhanced bass and noise isolation ensure you’re hearing the music exactly as the artists intended it, and the devices are also waterproof, so they’re safe from spilled drinks, pools, inclement weather, and the toilet.

Buy it: Wicked Audio

9. Fineliner Pens; $9

taotree fineliner pens
Amazon

Taotree’s Fineliner pens are a bullet journaler’s best friend, but you don’t have to be a master of organization to take advantage of these 24 brightly colored, versatile utensils. You could use them to color-code your class notes, pair them with a coloring book for the ultimate de-stressing session, or design your own fine-ink drawings. They dry quickly, won’t bleed through your paper, and have a soft-edged triangular shape for easy gripping. With an average 4.5-star review on Amazon, these pens will add color and character to all of your written projects.

Buy it: Amazon

10. PackIt Freezable Lunch Bag; $20

packit freezable lunch bag
Amazon

With PackIt’s freezable lunch bag, you’ll never again have to jam ice packs around your meal-prepped containers—as long as you remember to pop the bag in the freezer the night before you’re planning to use it. The walls are insulated with a freezing gel that will refrigerate your food until you’re ready for lunch. It zips closed to keep the cold in, collapses for easy storage, and includes a plastic buckle on the top so you can easily clip it to your backpack or bag. It also comes in a lively assortment of designs like cartoon cats, unicorns, mermaids, and cherries (and, of course, many more traditional patterns like polka dots, stripes, and camouflage).

Buy it: Amazon

11. Magnetic Dry-Erase Board; $15-$54

magnetic dry-erase board
Amazon

Whether you need to leave chore-related messages on the fridge for your roommates or homework-related messages for yourself in your locker, Yuc has a magnetic dry-erase board in every size for every situation. The smallest is 12 inches by 8 inches, the largest is 29 inches by 21 inches, and there are even weekly and monthly options so you can see your schedule at eye level. The boards are stain- and wrinkle-resistant, and each comes with a rectangular magnetic eraser, plus five different-colored fine-tipped markers whose caps also double as magnetic erasers.

Buy it: Amazon

12. SnackSack Subscription Box; $25/month

SnackSack Subscription
Amazon

Since getting back into the swing of school is always busy and exhausting, it’s easy to forgo a commitment to healthy eating and instead reach for the nearest bag of Doritos to keep you going. The SnackSack subscription box will help you make sure that doesn’t happen (too often). Each month, you’ll receive a package with 11 to 14 carefully curated, deliciously satisfying healthy snacks like bars, cookies, chips, nuts, seeds, sweets, and popcorn to support you through every all-nighter and last-minute group project—and there are vegan and gluten-free options, too.

Buy it: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

12 Facts About Netflix, Recommended For You

kasinv/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus
kasinv/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus

Netflix has become the world’s intravenous line for filmed entertainment. And like any media empire, it has a few stories of its own to tell. Take a look at some lesser-known, non-buffering facts about the streaming giant.

1. Early Netflix subscribers got a lot of Chinese pornography.

Addict man at computer laptop watching porn internet addiction concept
OcusFocus/iStock via Getty Images

In 1998, Netflix was still in the business of selling as well as renting DVDs. To try and offer consumers something new, co-founder Marc Randolph decided to offer footage of President Bill Clinton’s Grand Jury testimony about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky. But according to the book Netflixed, the duplicating house had a mix-up: out of the 1000 customers who ordered Clinton's interview, a few hundred received discs full of hardcore Chinese pornography.

2. Netflix was originally called Kibble.

Choosing a name for the company was a drawn-out process. Directpix.com, Replay.com, and other names were considered; so was Luna.com, which was the name of Randolph’s dog. When the company was being incorporated, he named it Kibble.com until they could decide on something permanent.

3. Netflix executives used to make house calls.

From the beginning, Netflix has been preoccupied with seeing how users interact with its software in order to select titles. In the late 1990s, subscribers near the company’s location in Los Gatos, California were reached via telephone and asked a series of questions. Then staffers would ask if they could stop by to watch them use the site. Surprisingly, most agreed. Netflix brought them coffee, a small investment for gaining valuable information about their usage.

4. Netflix got Dennis Quaid to sing.

For a 2006-2007 publicity tour, Netflix decided to screen films in thematically-correct locations: For example, Field of Dreams was shown in the “real” Iowa cornfield-slash-baseball diamond featured in the movie. But the company also wanted actors to make appearances. Their approach: offer to let those with bands perform for the crowds. Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis, Dennis Quaid, and Kevin Bacon all agreed to the barter deal. Quaid and his band, The Sharks, played in New Orleans before a screening of his film The Big Easy.

5. Netflix has made a science out of spoilers.

Because so much of Netflix’s high-profile content can be “binged” in a single weekend, the company commissioned cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken to examine how spoilers affect a person’s viewing habits. McCracken identified classifications of spoiler-prone people by whether they ruin a plot twist intentionally or hold it over others. (Some people are “Coded Spoilers,” too self-aware to let anything slip. These people are your friends.) His verdict? Some people enjoy the power they get from having knowledge of spoilers. But if a show is good enough, knowing about key scenes won't dissuade viewers from watching.

6. Netflix staffers think you decide on a movie in two minutes.

Apple iPad displaying Netflix app, Black with Reflection
bmcent1/iStock Editorial via Getty Images

Netflix spends more than $150 million on improving their recommendation system every year, trying to arrange selections based on what they think you might like. That kind of personalized menu is necessary: The company estimates that users spend only two minutes browsing for a title before choosing one or opting for another diversion entirely.

7. Netflix staffers also think you might be kind of a liar. 

You can stop trying to impress Netflix with the streaming version of keeping Ulysses on your coffee table. In a 2013 WIRED interview, Carlos Gomez-Uribe—the company's vice president of product innovation from 2010 to 2016—noted that viewers often report viewing documentaries or esoteric foreign movies. “But in practice,” he said, “that doesn’t happen very much.”

8. the first "netflix original" was an abstract test footage short.

In order to test frame rates and how their streaming service handles different kinds of content, Netflix produced 11 minutes of test footage in 2011 that can be viewed by typing “example show” in their search engine. Cut together (as seen above), the shorts become a very strange, very abstract art film, with an unidentified man juggling and reciting Shakespeare. (But not, sadly, juggling while reciting Shakespeare.)

9. Netflix binge-watching might correlate with depression. 

A 2015 study by the University of Texas found that respondents who claimed to binge Netflix shows were more likely to suffer from depression, lack of self-control, or loneliness. The good news? The sample group was small—only 316 people—and the university’s definition of “binge-watching” was as low as two episodes. Amateurs. 

10. There’s a secret Netflix menu.

Netflix website showing on screen laptop with macbook pro at cafe
wutwhanfoto/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus

No, not that kind of secret menu. Pressing Shift + Alt + a left mouse click brings up a troubleshooting menu that allows you to adjust the bit rate of a stream so it doesn’t buffer. (On a Mac, it's Shift + Option + click.) The picture quality won’t be as good, but it’s better than a pixelated Demogorgon.

11. There was once a glitch in the Netflix matrix. 

In 2014, Netflix’s content descriptions became odd amalgamations of two different titles to create one completely nonsensical listing. The summaries were quickly fixed, but not before someone took several screen shots of the mishaps.

12. You'll soon be able to stream Netflix in a Tesla.


Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

In July 2019, Tesla founder Elon Musk informed Tesla owners they would soon be able to stream both Netflix and YouTube in their cars, an attractive option for anyone looking to keep passengers occupied. But there's a catch: The services only work when the cars are parked. The feature will be available in newer-model cars at a date to be determined.

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