5 Things That Only Exist Because of A Dumb Bet
Gambling is an ancient pastime, one that can probably be traced back to cavemen wagering their Good Stick on which of them could take down a sabre-toothed cat the fastest. As soon as humans had both mouths and money, the drive to put one where the other was took root and never went away. Nowadays, gambling’s not only a friendly agreement but a business worth billions of dollars, brilliantly making profit hand-over-fist off of human’s deep psychological need to believe that they are special and something good might happen to them.
Of course, for every weirdo windfall that pays out millions of dollars to some guy placing a bizarre prop bet, there’s a wealth of people whose lives have been ruined by gambling. A trip to the casino is all fun and games until you see the same sweaty guy at the ATM for the seventh time. However, at a few points in history, gambling has led to big, surprisingly positive results, not only for the people involved in the wager, but for society at large. Such as…
Green Eggs and Ham
As far as imaginations go, you wouldn’t think that Dr. Seuss’ is one that you’d particularly want to single out, but that’s exactly what happened. Seuss’ publisher, a man named Bennett Cerf, famously bet the author and illustrator that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 words. Now, first of all, if there’s a category of author that can get by just fine with a limited vocabulary, it’s a children’s book author. I mean, we’re talking about a man that has literally just published the book One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, and that’s not exactly sending anybody running for a dictionary.
Regardless, Seuss accepted the bet, and the book produced according to its rules was maybe his most famous book of all time: Green Eggs and Ham. Cerf was forced to pay up the original bet of $50, which I am sure he was more than fine parting with as soon as the sales numbers started coming in. Honestly, I assume the purpose of the entire bet was just to get Seuss to churn out another book in the minimum possible time. It’s the boss version of betting a kid he won’t eat a whole plate of broccoli.
It turns out that, outside of maybe authors, nobody enjoys a good wager quite like scientists. There seems to be quite a history of scientists goading each other into great advancements with the help of a few dangling bills serving as an extra fishing-pole-carrot. Scientist Richard Feynman decided to throw a bit of pocket change on the table to support something he theorized in the year 1959. At a scientific talk, he proposed the idea of tiny machines and motors the size of mites, which was met with derision and laughter. Pro tip: If a prediction of the future is met with derision and laughter, that thing is probably going to win a Nobel Prize at some point.
Feynman offered up $1,000 to anyone who could make a functioning motor that occupied less than 1/64 of a cubic inch. He hoped it might motivate some new advancements in engineering or fabrication, but all it ended up doing was proving that he’d underestimated the power of current engineering. A man named Bill McLellan, who worked at a scientific instrument company, built a tiny motor, containing wire the width of a human hair, with nothing but the kind of hands that a gunslinger would kill for, a toothpick, paintbrush hairs and similar. Feynman had to agree he’d met the requirements and paid up. It was still a far cry from modern nanotechnology, but the history can be traced back to Feynman and McLellan all the same.
For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn
The world’s quickest read — and sometimes called its shortest novel — is this six-word emotional sledgehammer cooked up by Ernest Hemingway. Legendary enough in its own right, it’s kicked off an entire legacy of writing exercises, literary attempts and tweet formats. If the tales are true, Hemingway came up with the tiny tale as a response to a group of authors betting on who could write a full story in only six words. Two booties and negative one baby later, Hemingway claimed the prize with his bumper-sticker-length tragedy.
I wasn’t kidding about scientists and authors being absolute gambling addicts. The tradition goes back pretty damn far into the past as well, pre-dating even some basic knowledge about the planets. In 1684, the architect Christopher Wren laid out a bet after becoming curious about the reasoning for the elliptical movement of the planets. He put up 40 shillings to anyone that could come up with mathematical proof explaining the phenomenon, even though it was widely accepted.
The bet got the attention of one man in particular: Isaac Newton, and he threw him into an academic mission that would last years. Unfortunately, Wren’s bet had a time limit, one that Newton missed by a couple years. When he did emerge with the proof that Wren had monetarily requested, however, it was contained within a collection of manuscripts that would change the course of the world. He had just written the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, more commonly known as just “The Principia,” which is considered one of the most important publications not only in the entire study of physics, but in the history of science. I mean, this thing contained some undeniable bangers, like, I dunno, the laws of motion? A pretty good consolation prize for not getting those 40 shillings.
Steven Seagal’s Entire Career
We won’t expound too deeply on this one, given that it’s mostly rumor and scuttlebutt, but at the same time, man, is it a fun one. As the legend goes, Steven Seagal, famous ponytailed dickhead, was made a movie star basically as a flex of the Hollywood sway of the man who would be his agent. That man was Michael Ovitz, co-founder of the Creative Artists Agency, or CAA. Calling the man who co-founded CAA an “agent” doesn’t even feel accurate. It’s like calling Henry Ford a “motorist.”
Rumor has it that Ovitz ended up in a bet that he could make anybody a star, and his weird aikido teacher that had the default facial expression of a man confused by a kaleidoscope reaped the benefits. One botched screen test and aikido demonstration later, Seagal was the leading man in Above the Law. None of this has ever been confirmed, but there’s enough fun details to make it worth whispering about. First of all, going from zero real roles to a listed leading man was highly unusual, and the fact that Ovitz was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood at the time was not at all an exaggeration. The guy could have gotten a ham sandwich a syndicated sitcom if he wanted to. Unfortunately, Ovitz has remained mum on the claim, and Seagal is probably too busy making his glasses smaller to clarify.