Bored? Check Out Mark Twain's Trivia Game.

Slate's Culture Blog
April 22 2010 3:33 PM

Bored? Check Out Mark Twain's Trivia Game.


Mark Twain, who died exactly 100 years and one day ago, was inventive in more ways than one. The prolific writer, lecturer, and quipper also patented three creations in his lifetime. The first was an


designed to replace suspenders, which he found uncomfortable. The second was a scrapbook with adhesive pages called, appropriately, "

." Though neither of these contraptions stood the test of time, Twain's third invention is still available, if you know where to look.

The writer received his last patent for a trivia game he named "Memory Builder." As Thomas Walsh and Thomas Zlatic explain in an

published in 1981, Twain cooked up the first version of the game as an outdoor activity meant to teach his own children the history of England's monarchs. Twain physically mapped the monarchs' reigns by driving pegs, each of which represented a different king, into his driveway. The pegs were separated by varying spaces that represented the length of each king's reign

Henry II was 35 feet away from Richard, who was 10 feet from John, and so on. Later, Twain expanded the game to include French kings and all sorts of European and American historical figures and events: "


Twain was so excited about his creation that he neglected everything else he was working on


in favor of inventing an indoor version of the game that he could try to sell. After two years of work, though, the game was still far too complicated to be marketable. Twain patented Memory Builder in 1885 anyway.

Basically, the game play of Memory Builder goes something like this: Players take turns selecting a year of history and naming a historical fact about that year. They mark their turns by sticking pins into boxes on the game board that represent years. Twain divided the facts that could be named into three major categories: Accessions ("to thrones, presidencies, etc."), which were worth 10 points each; Battles, worth five points, and Minor Events, which were worth one point. Twain defines minor events as "births, deaths, dates of inventions, and any other facts, great or small, that are datable and worth remembering."

Twain also allows for players to name "Miscellaneous Facts," which he describes, wonderfully, as follows:

"Miscellaneous Facts are facts which do not depend upon dates for their value. If you know how many bones there are in the human foot (whereas most of us don't), you can state the number and score one point. Populations, boundaries of countries, length of rivers, specific gravity of various metals, astronomical facts

anything that is worth remembering,

is admissible, and you can score for it. If you explain what England understands by it when a member of Parliament 'applies for the Chiltern Hundreds,' do it and score a point. Waste no opportunity to tell all you know."

Memory Builder doesn't really build memory, then

it's impossible to play unless each player has a vast store of historical knowledge before he starts playing the game. If you do have a great memory for facts historical or miscellaneous, however, you might enjoy it. Try playing the game for yourself

. There are

bones in the human foot.



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