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The Best College Prank Of The 1790s (With Bats, Poop & Grass)

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
September 28, 2012

In yesterday’s post, I crowned an Oxford geologist William Buckland as Most Daring Eater Ever. And he was. But I think he deserves one additional, all be it smaller, honor.

When William Buckland was a kid, an undergraduate at Oxford in the late 1790s — around the time George Washington had just finished being President — he pulled a prank that was so rude, so smart, and so biologically sophisticated for his day, I think he deserves a second crown, this one for Best Use of Grass Ever.

Here’s what he did. William Buckland got himself — I don’t know how — some buckets of bat guano. Guano, you should know, is animal poop, very rich in nutrients, excellent as a fertilizer. Back in the ’90s (the 1790s), these fertilizers, mostly bird excrement from pelicans and seagulls, were new to British gardeners. They had fertilizers, of course, but guano on a grand scale was new, an idea imported from the Americas, from Cuba and the Andes, where farmers used poop extensively.

In Britain, pasting poop on a spring lawn was not “done.” But that’s what Buckland did.

He took bat poop and spread it across his Oxford College lawn, but not evenly. Instead he used the guano to spell, first a giant letter, G. Then a U. Then an A. Then an N. Then an O.

The poop looked a little odd at first, then settled into the ground and seemed to disappear.

But when the grass began to grow, the letters came back, blazing green, forming a very distinct, inerasable G-U-A-N- O — billboarding bird poop technology not just for a few days — no. The word stubbornly stayed in plain, luxuriant view — for the entire summer.


Thanks to Radiolab regular Sam Kean and his new book The Violinist’s Thumb for finding this story, and to Benjamin Arthur, our artist, who is now our official College Prank Historian. Last year, he illustrated our “What’s a Smoot?” blog post, the tale of a freshman at MIT who lies down on a bridge during a college prank and becomes a world-wide unit of measure. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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