If you've ever wondered
where that line came from, here's the answer for you: Snoopy didn't
create it; he borrowed it from a novel written in 1830. (The name of
Snoopy, by the way, is the name most commonly chosen by dog owners,
but that has nothing to do with this story, so we'll move on.)
novel was titled "Paul Clifford," and it was a crime story about
judicial reform. I had never heard of the novel before working on
this story, but my research led me to an interesting fact.
In 1982, the English Department at San Jose State University
established a contest for the writer who could create the worst
opening sentence for a novel. It's called the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction
Contest, and it is named for the "Paul Clifford" author, Sir Edward
Bulwer-Lytton. He was the author who penned the opening line "It was
a dark and stormy night."
Edward Bulwer-Lytton was born in London in 1803, the youngest of
three sons. His father was a general who was assigned by the British
government to help defend against a possible invasion by Napoleon
(it never happened). Bulwer-Lytton's mother was an heiress.
Writers enter the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest by writing the
worst opening sentence for a possible novel. The winner in 2000
won with this line:
heather-encrusted Headlands, veiled in fog as thick as smoke in a
crowded pub, hunched precariously over the moors, their rocky elbows
slipping off land's end, their bulbous, craggy noses thrust into the
thick foam of the North Sea like bearded old men falling asleep in
Who would intentionally write such bad prose? Well, who would
know more about writing headlines than an advertising executive?
[to top of second column]
The "winner" was an advertising exec named Gary Dahl of Los
Gatos, Calif. (which is also the hometown of Apple co-founder Steve
Wozniak, but that has nothing to do with this story, so we'll move
on). One of Dahl's claims to fame is that he is the author of the
book "Advertising for Dummies," so he knows a thing or two about
That can't be the end of this story, can it? No, we're only
Dahl invented something that you either watched your kids go
crazy over (if you're a senior citizen), or you went crazy over it
yourself (if you're a baby boomer or a member of Generation X), or
you heard your parents tell you stories about this ridiculous
invention that everyone bought back in the mid-1970s (if you're a
member of Generation Y or the millennial generation).
Whenever people talk about fads, they inevitably mention Dahl's
invention. In fact, whenever people talk about inventions, they
often mention the 1975 invention by Gary Dahl -- the same Gary Dahl
who won the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest 25 years later.
His invention was originally conceived as a parody of a
If that doesn't ring a bell, it's because he refined it until he
had a product that people wanted. In fact, Dahl sold a little more
than a million units, at a profit of $1.05 each. You can buy a lot
of rocks with a million bucks, and that's exactly what he did,
because the invention that he created is the Pet Rock.
Now this story is officially over.
Paul Niemann's column is syndicated
to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention
Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2008