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13 of the Luckiest People in History

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The concept of luck seems to be a catchall for things we just can’t explain—like surviving deadly experiences or happening upon world-altering inventions. Even though we don’t know why, some people just seem to have more luck than others.

1. TEDDY ROOSEVELT

Former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt had a reputation for being a stubborn fighter, which might have some weight considering he survived an up-close assassination attempt and lived to tell the tale (or rather, continue on with his day). On October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was leaving a Milwaukee hotel for a campaign stop, where he was shot in the chest by John Schrank, a New York City saloonkeeper. Schrank’s bullet was lodged in Roosevelt’s rib, but it had been slowed by the 50-page speech and eyeglass case tucked in his coat pocket. Roosevelt refused medical attention and addressed his audience with a 90-minute speech, saying “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”

2. VESNA VULOVIC

Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulovic was incorrectly scheduled to work on January 26, 1972. Mistaken for another coworker named Vesna, Vulovic went to work greeting passengers onboard a flight from Copenhagen back to Yugoslavia. But within an hour, she laid among aircraft wreckage in Czechoslovakia, the sole survivor of a plane explosion that killed 27 people. In the crash landing, Vulovic allegedly fell 33,300 feet, trapped inside the plane’s fuselage. While she was initially paralyzed and sustained a variety of broken bones and fractures (she spent 16 months in the hospital after the incident), Vulovic fully recovered without any memory of the fall. The Guinness Book of World Records recognized Vulovic for the "Highest Fall Survived Without a Parachute," though recent investigators believe crash details were altered for propaganda uses.

3. ADOLPHE SAX

Belgian musician and inventor Adolphe Sax is best known for his reedy, namesake instrument: the saxophone. The son of a carpenter and instrument maker, Sax’s early 1800s childhood was put to use perfecting already popular instruments like the clarinet and using improvements to dream up his own inventions (cue the saxtuba and saxhorn). While Sax is known for his contributions to musical history, what many don’t know is how often he escaped death. As a toddler, Sax fell the “height of three floors” before hitting his head on a rock, and was initially believed to be dead. By 3 years old, he had drank a bowl of sulfuric acid and swallowed a needle. Sax also endured serious burns from a gunpowder explosion and a cast iron frying pan, later almost suffocating in his sleep from heavy varnish fumes. Falling cobblestones and a near-drowning in a river round out some of Sax’s childhood mishaps. Sax’s mother, Marie-Joseph Sax, certainly noticed the pattern. “He’s a child condemned to misfortune," she once said. "He won't live." (She was wrong. He lived to be 79.)

4. ROY SULLIVAN

The odds of being struck by lighting during your lifetime are 1 in 12,000. But this probably came as little comfort to park ranger Roy Sullivan, who survived seven lightning strikes over the course of 35 years. Sullivan’s first encounter with lightning occurred in 1942 when he ran through a storm in Shenandoah National Park. Additional lightning hits followed in 1969, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1976, and 1977. Sullivan’s relationship with lightning led to a variety of jokes and rumors, including a rumor that he kept lightning rods on his four-poster bed. Sullivan died in 1983 at the age of 71, but not from lightning—sadly, it was from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

5. LUDGER SYLBARIS

Ludger Sylbaris was known in the early 1900s for his sideshow tales of surviving a volcanic eruption on the island of Martinique. And while some of his embellishments (suggesting he was the only survivor of the eruption) weren’t quite true, Sylbaris did in fact survive Mount Pelée’s eruption in 1902—and it’s because he was in jail. Sylbaris was known for drinking and fighting, which landed him in a stone jail cell in the town of Saint-Pierre. The morning after his arrest, Mt. Pelée erupted, destroying the town and killing an estimated 30,0000 people. Sylbaris was shielded from flying debris and much of the heat in his partially underground jail cell, but still had severe burns when he was discovered by rescue teams four days later. Sylbaris used his near-death experience for a chance at fame, touring with the Barnum and Bailey Circus as “The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday.”

6. CHARLES XIV JOHN OF SWEDEN

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Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was born the son of a French lawyer in 1763, but died as King of Sweden—mostly because he was a nice guy. Bernadotte had a lengthy military career and turbulent relationship with Napoleon that saw him leading military campaigns through Germany and Italy. While there, he kept a handle on his troops, refusing to allow looting and theft, which gained Bernadotte respect from his adversaries, though later unsuccessful battles in Bernadotte’s career led to distrust from Parisian politicians in the early 1800s. In 1810, an ill and childless King Charles XIII led Sweden to conduct a star-search of sorts for an heir, and Bernadotte was offered the role of Sweden’s crown prince. Bernadotte was selected because of his military experience, but also due to the kindness and restraint he showed to Swedish solders during his military campaigns. Bernadotte adopted the name Charles XIV John and led Sweden following Charles XIII’s death in 1818 until his own death in 1844.

7. LEONARD THOMPSON

In 1922, doctors took a risk to save 14-year-old Leonard Thompson’s life by injecting him with an experimental substance: insulin. The young diabetic only weighed 65 pounds due to a starvation diet (the only treatment for diabetes at the time), and he was falling in and out of a coma. His parents were desperate for a solution, and though insulin was experimental and had not yet been tested on humans, they took a leap of faith and let the doctors inject Thompson with the mysterious drug. The first round of injections caused an allergic reaction in the boy, but after 12 days of tinkering, a purer insulin was extracted. Thompson's recovery was immediate, and within a month, front-pages were touting the new miracle drug.

8. GEORGE WASHINGTON

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Washington’s famous Delaware River crossing helped win the Revolutionary War, but it could have—and really, should have—been foiled. On Christmas evening 1776, Washington moved 5400 men across the river as a surprise maneuver against Hessian troops. The strategy worked, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise at all because the Hessians had advance warning. Two Patriot deserters warned Hessian commander Col. Johann Rall the day prior about an imminent river crossing, but he dismissed the report as unlikely, probably due to countless false alarms. What’s more, a red coat spy in Washington’s camp passed along word of the attack, but again, Rall believed that if Patriot troops really did make an attempt, they would be easily fought off. Luckily for Washington, history shows it didn’t work out like Rall thought it would.

9. CONSTANTIN FAHLBERG

Chemist Constantin Fahlberg secured himself a sweet spot in history, all by accident. While Fahlberg takes much of the credit (and took much of the profit) for creating artificial sweeteners, he wasn’t the first scientist to discover saccharin. But, he was the first chemist to realize that saccharin was a sweet and edible chemistry accident that could be used in place of sugar. Legend has it that after working in his lab, Fahlberg ate a roll, which tasted sweet because of saccharin residue on his hand. He rushed back to his lab to taste-test all of his instruments—the beakers and vials, etc.—until he could determine where the sweetness came from. Soon after his discovery, Fahlberg cut out his lab partner and filed patents for a mass-produced artificial sweetener that would go on to change the food industry.

10. HARRISON FORD

Hollywood legend Harrison Ford landed a lifetime of a luck during his younger years that spurred his acting career. Ford had an acting contract with Columbia and Universal studios, but he was primarily working as a carpenter. "I had helped George Lucas audition other actors for the principal parts, and with no expectation or indication that I might be considered for the part of Han," Ford said during a Reddit AMA (though he also had a part in Lucas's American Graffiti four years earlier). "I was quite surprised when I was offered the part." Lucas was impressed though, and the part effectively launched Ford's career.

11. JOAN GINTHER

Joan Ginther, a Texas mathematician living in Las Vegas, is often called the “luckiest woman in the world” because she’s won multimillion dollar jackpots not once or twice—but four times. Ginther’s wins have all taken place in her home state and raked in $20 million between 1993 and 2010. But because of Ginther’s background in statistics (she has a PhD from Stanford), there’s speculation that she’s not lucky at all, but rather knows how to play the odds just right.

12. CHARLES LINDBERGH

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They called him "Lucky Lindy" for a reason! Aviator Charles Lindbergh is best known for his solo transatlantic flight in 1927, but while Lindberg’s iconic trip was successful, his piloting history before that flight included four crashes: two in 1924 and two in 1926. He safely parachuted from each plummeting plane and went on to credit just how important a working chute was. “There is a saying in the service about the parachute: ‘If you need it and haven’t got it, you’ll never need it again!’ That just about sums up its value to aviation,” he wrote.

13. ROBERT BOGUCKI

American tourist and former Alaskan firefighter Robert Bogucki became the subject of a manhunt when he disappeared into Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert in July 1999. By the time the second search team found him (the first had been called off over two weeks before), Bogucki had spent 43 days wandering nearly 250 miles through the desert, eating plants and drinking collected groundwater. Upon his discovery, Bogucki told his rescuers he was ready to go home: “Yeah, well. Enough of this walking around.” Bogucki said he wasn’t quite sure why he ventured off into the desert (where wintertime temperatures often reach upward of 90 degrees—quite a departure from the Alaskan weather he was used to), but thought it might have been to placate his spiritual needs. “I do feel satisfied I scratched that itch, whatever it was,” he told reporters. For whatever reason, Bogucki sure got lucky.

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
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Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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13 Secrets From the Guinness Archives
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Guinness has been a staple in Irish pubs for nearly 260 years. With so much history, it's no surprise that the Guinness Storehouse Archives—which are open to the public—are stuffed with intriguing artifacts that tell some pretty wild stories. Here are a few.

1. THE LEASE TO THE DUBLIN BREWERY WAS INTENDED TO LAST 9000 YEARS.

In 1759, founder Arthur Guinness signed a lease for a four-acre property at St. James’s Gate in Dublin. The lease required a down payment of £100, an annual rent of £45, and a term of 9000 years (not a typo). Such lengthy leases were relatively common back then: “At the time in Ireland, there was a lot of instability to do with land tenure,” explains Fergus Brady, Archives Manager at Guinness. Centuries earlier, the British had begun confiscating land from native Irish in an effort to build plantations, and extra-long leases were a means of avoiding this fate. As Brady explains, “You see these really long leases: 99-year or 999-year leases. It seemed to be a legal custom at the time that they used the number nine.”

2. ARTHUR GUINNESS WAS NOT AFRAID TO DEFEND HIS PROPERTY WITH A PICKAXE.

In 1775, the Dublin Corporation—that is, the city government—demanded that Arthur Guinness pay for the spring water flowing to his brewery. When Guinness argued that he was already paying for water rights through his 9000-year rental agreement, the Dublin Corporation sent a sheriff and a committee to his brewery to cut off the water supply. Guinness was livid. He seized a pickaxe and unleashed a torrent of obscenities so colorful that the Dublin Corporation’s goons eventually retreated.

3. GUINNESS ONCE DEPLOYED FIELD AGENTS TO CATCH COUNTERFEITERS.

Guinness Apology
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In the 19th century, there was no such thing as brand consistency. Guinness did not bottle its own beer; instead, it shipped the suds in wooden casks to publicans who supplied their own bottles and applied their own personalized labels. Occasionally, these publicans sold fake or adulterated Guinness. To prevent such sales, the company sent special agents called “travellers” into the field to collect beer samples, which it tested in a laboratory. “If a publican was found to be serving adulterated or counterfeit Guinness, they had to give a public apology in their local newspaper—and even the national newspapers,” archivist Jessica Handy says.

4. FOR 21 YEARS, THE COMPANY HIRED A GUY TO TRAVEL THE WORLD AND DRINK BEER.

In 1899, Guinness hired an American ex-brewer named Arthur T. Shand to be a “Guinness World Traveller.” It was arguably the coolest job in the world. For 21 years, Shand traveled the world taste-testing beer. According to Brady, “His job was to travel the world and taste Guinness, say whether it was good or bad, who our bottlers in the market were, who our major competition was, what kind of people were drinking our product.” Shand traveled to Australia and New Zealand, to Southeast Asia and Egypt. “He was sort of a Guinness sommelier,” Brady says.

5. THE COMPANY'S HARP LOGO CAUSED TROUBLE WITH THE IRISH GOVERNMENT.

The Celtic harp—based on the 14th century “Brian Boru Harp” preserved at Trinity College—became a trademarked Guinness logo in 1876. Forty-five years later, when Ireland gained independence from England, the Irish Free State decided to use the same Celtic harp as its official state emblem. This became awkward. Guinness owned the trademark, and the Irish government was forced to search for a workaround. You can find their solution on an Irish Euro coin. Look at the coin, and you’ll notice that the harp’s straight edge faces the right; meanwhile, the harp on a glass of Guinness shows the straight edge facing left [PDF].

6. GUINNESS REPORTEDLY SAVED LIVES ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

The old slogan “Guinness is good for you” sounds like a marketing gimmick, but it was born out of a genuine belief that the beer was, in fact, a restorative tonic. The health claim dates back to 1815, when an ailing cavalry officer wounded at the Battle of Waterloo reportedly credited Guinness for his recovery. For decades, the medical community widely claimed that the dark beer possessed real health benefits—and they weren’t necessarily wrong. “There was little safe drinking water at the time,” Handy says. “But with brewing, consumers knew they were getting a safe beverage.”

7. THE COMPANY CREATED A SPECIAL RECIPE FOR CONVALESCENTS.

A label for Guinness invalid stout
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

From the 1880s to the 1920s, Guinness produced a special “Nourishing Export Stout”—a.k.a. “Invalid Stout”—that contained extra sugars, alcohol, and solids and came in cute one-third pint bottles. “It was very common practice for people to buy a couple bottles and keep them as a tonic, even if it was just a glass or half a glass,” Handy says. In fact, Guinness went as far as asking general practitioners for testimonials attesting to the beer’s medical benefits. According to Brady, “Many of them wrote back and said yes, we prescribe this for various ailments.” One doctor even claimed a pint was “as nourishing as a glass of milk.”

8. DOCTORS REGULARLY PRESCRIBED THE BEER TO NURSING MOTHERS.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, many physicians believed Guinness was an effective galactagogue—that is, a lactation aid. The company sent bottles to hospitals as well as wax cartons of yeast (which supposedly helped skin problems and migraines). Hundreds, possibly thousands, of doctors prescribed the beer for ailments such as influenza, insomnia, and anxiety, David Hughes writes in A Bottle of Guinness Please: The Colourful History of Guinness. According to Brady, the company was sending beer to hospitals as late as the 1970s.

9. THE COMPANY ONCE DROPPED 200,000 MESSAGES-IN-A-BOTTLE INTO THE OCEAN.

A Guinness message in a bottle
The message within every bottle dropped in the Atlantic Ocean in 1959.
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In 1954, Guinness dumped 50,000 messages-in-a-bottle in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In 1959, they repeated the stunt again, with 38 ships dropping 150,000 bottles in the Atlantic. The first bottle was discovered in the Azores off Portugal just three months after the initial drop [PDF]. Since then, the bottles have turned up in California, New Zealand, and South Africa. Just last year, a bottle was discovered in Nova Scotia. (If you find one, you just might be offered a trip to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.)

10. THE PERSONNEL FILES IN THE GUINNESS ARCHIVES CONTAIN SOME DOOZIES.

The Guinness corporate archives are open to the public. According to Handy, “Some of the stories you get in there are amazing, because you get accident reports and you get crazy stories of people bouncing on bags of hops outside the brewery." This may sound less surprising considering that, back in the day, Guinness employees were given an allowance of two pints of beer every day [PDF].

11. A GUINNESS SCIENTIST MADE A STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT MARK IN THE FIELD OF STATISTICS.

If you’ve taken a statistics class, you might be familiar with the Student’s t-test or the t-statistic. (It’s a method of working with a small sample size when the standard deviation is unknown.) The t-test was first described by William S. Gosset, a brewer and statistician at Guinness who was attempting to analyze a small sample of malt extract. Gosset’s discovery not only helped Guinness create a more consistent-tasting beer, it would lay the bedrock for one of the most important concepts in statistics: statistical significance.

12. GUINNESS IS SO BIG IN AFRICA, IT LAUNCHED A SUCCESSFUL FEATURE-LENGTH FILM.

Guinness began exporting beer to Africa in 1827. In the 1960s, it opened a brewery in Nigeria—followed by Cameroon and Ghana. Today, there are reportedly more Guinness drinkers in Nigeria than there are in Ireland. “In Ireland, England, and the United States, everybody thinks that Guinness is synonymous with Ireland,” Brady says. “But in Nigeria, there’s a very very low conception of that.” The beer is such a cultural staple that a fictional character who advertised the product named Michael Power—a James Bond-like, crime-fighting journalist—became the star of a feature film in 2003 called Critical Assignment, which was a box office smash. (Of course, there’s some branding built into the script. As Brady explains, “There are definitely scenes where Michael Power is enjoying a pint of Guinness.”)

13. DISPENSING BEER WITH NITROGEN WAS ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED LAUGHABLE.

In the 1950s, Guinness scientist Michael Ash was tasked with solving the “draft problem.” At the time, dispensing a draft pint of Guinness was ridiculously complicated, and the company was losing market share to draft lagers in Britain that could be easily dispensed with CO2. “The stout was too lively to be dispensed with CO2 only,” Brady says. “Ash worked on the problem for four years, working long hours day or night, and became a bit of a recluse apparently. A lot of doubters at the brewery called the project ‘daft Guinness.’” But then Ash attempted dispensing the beer with plain air. It worked. The secret ingredient, Ash discovered, was nitrogen. The air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen. Today, a Guinness draft contains 75 percent nitrogen. Not only did the discovery make dispensing the beer easier, it created a creamy mouthfeel that’s been the signature of Irish stouts since.

Full disclosure: Guinness paid for the author to attend an International Stout Day festival in 2017, which provided the opportunity to speak to their archivists.

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