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Telling Tall Tales by Nigel Roth

Updated: Mar 3


In 1918, as the Eastern United States was losing its last ever native Carolina parrot, which had been taken from its natural environment and doomed to live out it’s last peckings in a wholly-unnatural cage at Cincinnati Zoo, Robert Pershing Wadlow was born.


You might know him, of course as the tallest person who ever lived.


An Illinoian from Alton, near St Louis, Wadlow grew to the astonishing height of 2.72 meters, and a grand weight of one-hundred-and-ninety-nine kilos.


He died aged twenty-two, but not before he was measured accurately and photographed widely, and stared at and watched like a Carolina parrot in an Ohio prison.


The irony is, of course, that we don’t actually know if he was the tallest person ever.


We do know, though, that the Gundam Robot, standing at eighteen meters tall, is the tallest robot in the world, and probably ever. Taking its style cues from the 1970s anime series, Mobile Suit Gundam, the robot walked just last month to it’s new home in the port of Yokohama, Japan, where it'll reside happily, and be admired.


But it’s not yet a complete human, and we have at least four other men with a claim to that tallest title, whose height was not officially recorded.


There’s the American John Aasen, for example, whose Norwegian ancestors were particularly tall, his mother said to have been 2.20 meters herself. Illegitimate at birth, and an orphan by twelve, he became a silent movie actor and sideshow performer, thanks to his claimed height of 2.74 meters.


We may look to John Middleton, whose height was said to have been 2.82 meters. Middleton, known as the Childe of Hale, was born in 1578, near Liverpool, in England, and was an oddity among both his fellow Elizabethan townsfolk, and King James I, at whose court he won, and was subsequently relieved of by his disloyal companions, a vast sum of eight-thousand dollars in today's money, for wrestling at the King’s pleasure.


If we don’t believe the height of those two man-mountains, maybe the Russian Feodor Andreevich Machnow could provide a rival to Wadlow. He was slightly taller than Middleton, so the story goes, achieving 2.83 meters at his death in 1912, from suspected pneumonia or possibly poisoning, after an exhausting schedule of touring the world as a one-man show.


And if Machnow doesn’t convince you, what of the tallest of them all, the colossal Giant of Castelnau, whose bone fragments on excavation in the late nineteenth century, showed him (or her) to have been around 3.50 meters tall. Discovered by the French anthropologist Count Georges Vacher de Lapouge, the bones came from a bronze age burial mound, and seemed to date from the Neolithic. Lapouge has the unenviable title of founder of ‘anthroposociology’, a discipline that aimed to confirm the superiority of certain ‘races’ over others, race in that sense being a misnomer in itself, of course.


Whether or not any of these claims are real, we’ll probably never know, but we do need to adjust Wadlow’s title a little; he’s the tallest person we know of for sure.


And that’s not quite right either.


The American John F Carroll, the Ukranian Leonid Stadnyk, the Bangladeshi Jinna Ali, and the Indian Vikas Uppal, were all above 2.50 meters, but they refused to be measured accurately, so we really don’t know how tall they actually were.


Wadlow, then, is actually the tallest accurately-measured person we have evidence for.


And then there is one more caveat that makes Wadlow far less spectacular as a giant.


In creating the Gundam humanoid, engineers spent six years designing and balancing the robot so that it could securely support itself, and so all its composite parts worked perfectly, allowing it to bend easily, move it’s limbs freely, and generally do what humans do without discomfort. Not easy when you weigh twenty-five tons.