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‘Famous First Facts’ Is a Myth-Slayer’s View of History : Author Gives Credit Where It’s Long Overdue

Associated Press

Joseph Nathan Kane tells a visitor to come to the 27th floor of an upper West Side building that has only 25 floors. He promises a $5-million view with $5 worth of furniture.

Joe Kane will also tell you that the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4, 1776, that George Washington was not the first President, that Elias Howe did not invent the sewing machine and that Charles Edgar Duryea really invented the first automobile that was manufactured for sale.

Kane, an 89-year-old ex-newspaperman, is serious. He is not just the author, but the entire staff of one of the most unusual and most enduring reference books in the world. “Famous First Facts: A Record of First Happenings, Discoveries, and Inventions in the United States,” it was called when it was first published in 1933.

Kane is working on a fifth edition--the fourth came out in 1981--as well as four other books he hopes to publish within a year or two.

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Quaintly Furnished Flat

Everything emanates from his unusual apartment, where there are more papers, index cards, reference books and bookcases than places to sit down. Except for a few house plants and the Dr Pepper he keeps in the refrigerator, not much in this oddly shaped room seems to have been purchased in the last half-century. Make that a century.

Kane, the sole inhabitant of this garret for more than 25 years, is not a man who exaggerates. The view from what passes as his kitchen is indeed worth $5 million--up the Hudson River, beyond the George Washington Bridge, down to the World Trade Center and over to New Jersey.

So what if you have to walk up the last two flights because the elevator stops at 25?

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Kane has written more than 50 books. Some, such as the forgettable volume, “What Dog Is That?” (describing various breeds) were churned out just to pay the rent. He also has sold more than 1,000 newspaper articles. He once had his own news service and was an accredited White House correspondent.

He has been called a historian, a detective of facts and a deglorifier of American history.

‘Fairy Tales’ Debunked

“History,” he proclaims, “is a glorification of fairy tales. There isn’t a thing you know that is correct, but still it is better to know something that is wrong than not to know anything.”

It is better, for instance, to think George Washington was the first President than not to have any idea. The truth is, Washington was the first President elected under the Constitution, but Thomas McKean of Delaware was the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled under the Articles of Confederation in 1781, eight years before Washington took office.

It is also good to know the importance of July 4, 1776, but actually, according to Kane, the Declaration of Independence was first ordered “to be fairly engrossed on parchment” on July 19, 1776, and was signed in Philadelphia on Aug. 2 by 50 members of the original group of 56 who voted for its adoption. The other six signed later, the last being Thomas McKean, who was permitted to sign as late as 1781 due to his serving in the Army away from Philadelphia.

Many Claims to Auto

“Over 50 people have told me their father invented the automobile, for example,” Kane said. “When I start verifying claims, I find that someone’s father may have invented the fourth knob on the fifth spark plug on the sixth day at 7 o’clock, but he didn’t invent the automobile.”

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Charles Edgar Duryea opened Duryea Motor Wagon Co. in Springfield, Mass., in 1895. He began building his automobile in 1891 and first successfully operated it on April 19, 1892.

Kane publishes only those facts that can be verified through patent offices, official records in the Library of Congress, or other original data.

“I’m stupid enough not to believe anything until I see the proof,” he said.

Kane wrote his first book in 1929. It wasn’t until four years later, after it had been rejected by 11 publishers, that he sold the idea to the H. W. Wilson Co.--with a little help from librarians he met as he crisscrossed the United States on an 11-month tour. He showed them the local facts, which they knew to be correct, and then beseeched them to write the California-based company and say they would love to have such a tome in their reference rooms.

It wasn’t easy work.

Years of Research

“I’ve got stuff in that book--maybe five or six lines--that has taken me 30 to 40 years to verify.”

Kane has mellowed with the years. He still gives lectures--"rambles” he calls them--and manages to irritate his audiences by debunking “truths” learned in grade school.

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But he’s softer now.

“I used to be a wise guy. I would write letters correcting people. I once corrected someone on a number of facts in a presentation, and I embarrassed him and broke his heart. . . . After all, what difference does it really make?”

Kane says he gets three or four calls from the White House staff each year, asking him questions. For the White House, he’ll answer, but he makes sure that he gets the number and tells the aide he will call back. If the aide gives the right number, then Joe Kane stays on the line and answers the question.

When industry calls and asks if he can find them a first, he explains it will cost $35,000 and he won’t guarantee that he’ll find the answer. Budget planners don’t hop on that kind of honesty.

“A lot of what I have in the book is there by serendipity. It’s not something I set out to look up. You can’t look up half of these things. You just come across them as you go along.”

Wrote Quiz Shows

Kane plays a 50-year-old recording, a memento from his days as a writer for the early quiz shows. He wrote all the questions for “Break the Bank,” a network program that began on radio in 1945 and finished up on television in the ‘50s. Kane also supplied some questions to “The $64,000 Question” and “Double or Nothing.” He had just written a book on how to win money on quiz shows when a cheating scandal spoiled its chance to become a best-seller.

In a safe-deposit box Kane keeps a number of other treasures, including the first fountain pen, a shoe with a revolving heel (for even wear) and the first safety pin, with the patent number still on it. (That number, for trivia buffs, is 24,517.)

His newspaper articles are stored in metal boxes, over a century old, in which the New York Central used to keep its records.

Kane is an expert on the U.S. presidency, and is working on the fifth edition of “Facts About the Presidents.”

Kane is about 5 feet 8 with white hair and a neatly trimmed white beard, a fairly brisk gait and general good health, albeit with a slight hearing loss. He says his parents lived well into their 90s, and he intends to do at least as well.

‘Pact With the Devil’

“I’ve made a rather Faustian pact with the devil,” he deadpans. “I’ll be ready to go two days after I finish my last project--but, you see, I’ve left myself quite an open back door.”

Kane and a lady friend spend two weeks every year at a Mexican spa, where he relaxes, keeps a vegetarian diet and boasts that the ceilings are dusted twice a day with feather dusters. That compensates for the scorpions on the floor.

Kane sees his tilting at the windmills of history as a fight for the underdog, that is, the truly creative man or woman who never made the history books because someone else had better public-relations skills.


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