Joseph Nathan Kane
|Died||September 22, 2002 (aged 103)|
|Known for||Reference books|
|Spouse(s)||Bertha Roche (m. 1932)|
Joseph Nathan Kane (January 23, 1899 – September 22, 2002) was an American non-fiction writer and journalist, who wrote what the Chronicle of Higher Education calls "some of the most widely used reference works in publishing history." 
Kane was the oldest of three children born to Jewish parents. His father was Albert Kane and his mother was Hulda Ascheim. He grew up on the Upper West Side in New York City. He had a brother called Albert and a sister called Ann. Kane's grandfather on his mother's side was a wholesaler of woollens while his paternal grandfather was a composer. He in turn followed his father's father's steps playing musical instruments. As a young boy he learned to play the mandolin as well as the violin and banjo.
Kane attended Public School 10 in New York City where he was very interested in world geography. The school was conveniently located directly across the street from his home. Other alumni included Bennett Cerf (the publisher of Random House) and Richard Rodgers (the composer). It also educated many high court justices. Kane attended Townsend Harris High School, one of New York City's elite public secondary schools. Kane went up to Columbia University at age 18 in 1917. He dropped out without graduating. There he had taken courses in theatre and journalism. Off campus he studied foreign languages. He then went to Columbia School of Engineering and earned a certificate in electrical engineering. He became a Morse Code operator. He enlisted in the army expecting to use his engineering skills in the First World War, however he never saw active service, having contracted influenza in the 1918 epidemic, which nearly killed him.
Kane was first an editor for Academic Herald at Townsend Harris. There he interviewed many important people including John Wanamaker. Later he worked for the Jewish Press where he interviewed prominent people like H. G. Wells, Lord Balfour and Vicente Blasco-Ibanez. Kane then began working at confectionery manager D. Auerbach & Sons of New York City at the end of the First World War as their export department manager. They took advantage of Kane's knowledge of world geography, world currency, and his language abilities in French, German, and Spanish. He worked for Auerbach for only a year and then moved to Universal Export Corporation as their export manager for two years.
Kane began writing monthly articles on export matters and created Kane Feature News Syndicate about 1920. For some 20 years he syndicated hundreds of articles to more than twenty publications. Among his clients were the New York Times, American Hebrew, Underwear and Hosiery Review, Advertising Age, Cracker Baker, American Magazine, Printers' Ink, Nation's Business, National Costumer, American Hatter, Fur Age, and Playthings. He additionally sold his articles to Exporters' Digest and International Trade Review where he was editor for several years.
Kane received a handsome amount from Simon & Schuster in 1921 to write a book on the history of inventions. He was to write on things like the Wright brothers and their first aeroplane, Thomas Edison and his electric light bulb invention, Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, and Samuel F. B. Morse's invention of the telegraph. Starting in 1922 and lasting until 1932, Kane spent about eleven months out of every year traveling around the United States as a freelance, self-syndicated journalist. Kane sought out who invented what in the United States. He did much research on this project only to realize that often a lot of people appeared responsible for the same invention.
In the late 1920s Kane decided to write a book on the achievers of "firsts" whom history had forgotten. He limited his scope of establishing "firsts" to the United States where he could find proof of the claims in recorded documents. In his travels throughout the states Kane gathered information from historical societies, used-book stores, museums and libraries. He researched through recorded public documents in state and county records. Kane sought information from sales records, newspaper files, and filed patents. Additionally he obtained information from government departments and private organizations.
- Consultant to various television news departments.
- Consultant to the United States Congress, the White House, and the Department of the Interior.
- State Department accredited correspondent covering the 1921 Conference on the Limitation of Armaments in Washington, D.C.
Famous First Facts
After Kane collected all this information he decided to publish his material in a large reference book that could be used by libraries and others. Kane first tried to publish his lengthy detailed manuscript but was rejected by eleven publishers. On his twelfth approach he contacted Halsey W. Wilson, the founder and president of the publishing company H. W. Wilson Company.
Wilson was also hesitant. He was not sure there would be a market for this type of information. Kane then decided to mail or deliver in person a copy of portions of his manuscript to reference librarians across the United States. H. W. Wilson Company then received numerous letters requesting the book. Based on this they then published Kane's book Famous First Facts: A Record of First Happenings, Discoveries, and Inventions in the United States in 1933.
Kane's book was 757 pages long. It catalogued 3,000 facts arranged alphabetically according to subject and indexed chronologically and geographically. Some of the entries were
- the first distinctly American disease (tularemia, 1906).
- the first imported sheep (1609), cows (1624), and camels (1856).
- the first black army major (Martin Robinson Delaney, 1865).
- the first subway in America was the Beach Pneumatic Underground Railway of New York City built in 1870.
- the first steamboat to carry a person (built by John Fitch in 1787, twenty years before Fulton introduced regular steamboat service).
- the first lock-stitch sewing machine (made by Walter Hunt between 1832 and 1834, a dozen years before Elias Howe obtained his patent).
- that George Washington was not the first person to be known as the president of the United States. Thomas McKean of Delaware was first to be named "President of the United States" in 1781. Washington became president April 30, 1789.
It was reviewed in various newspapers nationwide as |....something new under the sun", "...a book more fascinating than the dictionary", "...a very valuable tool for the reference library", "...patient plugging away at dry statistics", "... a happy inspiration that set Joseph Nathan Kane at the task of producing so intriguing a volume." The New York Times on May 14, 1933, in an article wrote "a dogged resolution of almost superhuman force that kept him at work so incessantly grilling until it was finished".
Kane then published a supplement called More First Facts in 1935. It featured an index showing the various firsts occurring on each day of the year. The second edition of Famous First Facts was published fifteen years later. It included with its new entries material from both the original volume and the supplement. The book has been republished a further five times.
In 1959, Kane decided to focus his attention on the White House and wrote Facts about the Presidents. In this reference book Kane provided biographical information about the United States presidents.
Kane followed this up in 1989 with Facts about the States. The book provides information on each state's geography, demographics, economics, politics, culture, climate, history, education, and finances. It includes all fifty states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Radio and television
Kane hosted a weekly national radio program called Famous First Facts from 1938 to 1939 on the Mutual Broadcasting System. Each of his radio programs opened with a dramatised first fact followed by an interview with the subject of the first or one of their descendants. They included:
- a nine-year-old descendant of John Hanson, who headed the first Continental Congress.
- son of Charles E. Duryea, the builder of the first practical American gasoline automobile.
Kane supplied many of the questions for radio and television programs of the 1950s and 1960s like The $64,000 Question" and Double or Nothing. He supplied all the questions for the popular television program Break the Bank. The contestants for the program were at first drawn from the local studio audience. They competed for sums up to $10,000 – an exorbitant amount at the time. From October 1956 to January 1957, the program was later reintroduced and renamed Break the $250,000 Bank. This time it featured outside "experts" instead of studio audience contestants.
Interviews and reports
Kane passed on some of his philosophy to an interviewer for Current Biography who was gathering information for his article. He told the interviewer that at elementary school he would often ask a teacher when they had made a "factual" statement, "How do you know? And that was usually the end of the discussion." Kane pointed out to the interviewer that when he worked for the Jewish Press he interviewed famous people because he was, "trying to shed light on facts generally unknown".
Kane told another reporter that while getting his higher education the professors would assign certain books for the students to read. He would read something else, "I did not like to play follow-the-leader in education. If everyone was forced to read The Merchant of Venice, I would read Twelfth Night. Those professors were wrong when quoting facts and, besides that, I had read most of the books at the Columbia University Library before I entered Columbia." 
Kane once told a reporter for The Associated Press, "I'm stupid enough not to believe anything until I see the proof." 
Kane interviewing for an article for Liberty (December 1938) told the interviewer that, "Nobody knew who did it first. The credit always seemed to go to the inventor with the best publicity agent. The little man, too engrossed in his beloved work to advertise his exploits, was simply lost in the shuffle.
Kane pointed out in publishing his books that he was not attempting, "to remold public conceptions, but merely to present impartial facts and thus to replace romantic history with commonplace truth. Whenever rival claims have been put forth the one best substantiated has been given credence. Only those 'firsts' for which there are definite records are included; it is possible that further research into hitherto unpublished records may disclose additional data." 
End of life
Kane spent his last years in West Palm Beach, Florida, near his sister, Ann Madier. He suffered a broken hip at age 97, however he continued his work gathering facts. His last project was Necessity's Child: The Story of Walter Hunt, America's Forgotten Inventor. Kane figured Walter Hunt was really the true inventor of the sewing machine, the fountain pen, and the American safety pin.
Kane died on September 22, 2002, at the age of 103.
Points of interest
- Kane gave credit to inventors and other individuals who deserved recognition and/or credit for certain accomplishments, such as Walter Hunt. Kane figured out Hunt was the actual inventor of the first stitch-lock sewing machine (the credit went to Elias Howe and Isaac Singer). Hunt also invented the first American safety pin.
- In his bank safety deposit box Kane kept America's first fountain pen, Walter Hunt's 1849 patent model for the first American safety pin, and a shoe with a heel that could be rotated for wear.
- Kane was a Freemason. He was the Master of King Solomon Lodge in New York City in 1927. Kane wrote articles about the history of Freemasonry.
- Kane believed in the motto Simple truth is the most eloquent oratory.
- Kane was called on for answers by the White House three or four times a year.
- Kane is one of few people in recorded history to have actually lived in three different centuries: the 19th century, the 20th century, and the 21st century.
Kane wrote a total of 46 books including:
- Famous First Facts, a Record of First Happenings, Discoveries and Inventions in the United States, H. W. Wilson (New York, NY), 1933, 5th revised edition, 1997.
- More First Facts: A Record of First Happenings, Discoveries and Inventions in the United States, H. W. Wilson (New York, NY), 1935.
- What Dog Is That?, Greenberg (New York, NY), 1944.
- Centennial History of King Solomon Lodge No. 279, Free and Accepted Masons, 1852-1952, King Solomon Lodge No. 279 F & A.M. (New York, NY), 1952.
- The Perma Quiz Book, Permabooks (New York, NY), 1956.
- Facts about the Presidents: A Compilation of Biographical and Historical Data, H. W. Wilson Company (New York, NY), 1959, 7th revised edition, 2001.
- The American Counties: A Record of the Origin of the Names of the 3,067 counties, Dates of Creation and Organization, Area, Population, Historical Data, Etc., Scarecrow Press (New York, NY), 1960.
- The American Counties: Origins of County Names, Dates of Creation and Organization, Area, Population Including 1980 Census Figures, Historical Data, and Published Sources, 1983.
- Nicknames of Cities and States of the United States, Scarecrow Press (w/ Gerard L. Alexander) New York, NY, 1965
- Nicknames and Sobriquets of U.S. Cities, States, and Counties, 1979.
- Presidential Fact Book, Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
- Necessity's Child: The Story of Walter Hunt, America's Forgotten Inventor, McFarland (Jefferson, NC), 1997.
- Contemporary Authors
- Current Biography
- Severo, Richard (September 27, 2002). "New York Times article – Joseph Nathan Kane Dies; Master of Minutiae Was 103". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-08.
- February 12, 2012 Donald Altschiller, "In Praise of Reference-Book Authors." The Chronicle of Higher Education,
- Famous First Facts, p. 149, Item # 2781, George Washington was not the first president to be known as the president of the United States. After the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in 1781, the presidents of the sessions of the Continental Congress signed themselves "President of the United States in Congress Assembled." The first to do so was Thomas McKean of Delaware. George Washington was inaugurated in the Federal Building on Wall Street in New York City and served from April 30, 1789, to March 4, 1797.
- Severo, Richard (September 27, 2002). "New York Times article Sept 27, 2002 – Joseph Nathan Kane Dies; Master of Minutiae Was 103". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-08.
- Liberty p42+ D '38 pors
- New York Daily News p7 Ag 26 '76 por
- The Plain Dealer E p4 Jl 31 '85 por
- Who's Who in America Monthly Supplement No. 9, 1943
- Palm Beach Daily News p5 Je 16 '85 por, C p2 Ja 21 '83 por
- Contemporary Authors online database, Thomson Gale, 2004.
- Famous First Facts, H.W. Wilson Company 2000, ISBN 0-8242-0958-3
- Current Biography monthly magazine, 1985 issue – Joseph Nathan Kane.
- The Times, October 3, 2002, "Joseph Nathan Kane."
- New York Times, Sept. 27, 2002, by Richard Severo, p. A27 – Joseph Nathan Kane Dies, Master of Minutiae, Dies at 103.
- Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2002, "Joseph Kane, 103: Author Dug for Forgotten Facts and History," p. B9.
- American Reference Books Annual, 1977, Bohdan S. Wynar, review of The Kane Book of Famous First Facts and Records in the United States, p. 59; 1981, Edward J. Hall, Jr., review of Nicknames and Sobriquets of U.S. Cities, States, and Counties, 3rd ed., pp. 280–281; 1982, Gary D. Barber, review of Facts about the Presidents, 4th ed., p. 273, Rolland E. Stevens, review of Famous First Facts, 4th ed., pp. 53–54; 1985, David A. Cobb, review of The American Counties, 4th ed., p. 149; 1990, Daniel K. Blewett, review of Facts about the States, p. 294; 1994, Ronald H. Fritze, review of Facts about the Presidents, 6th ed., pp. 205–206.
- Best Sellers, October 1, 1970, review of The Pocket Book of Famous First Facts, p. 268.
- Booklist, July 15, 1970, review of Nicknames and Sobriquets of U.S. Cities and States, p. 1384; June 15, 1982, review of Facts about the Presidents, 4th ed., p. 1385; October 15, 1984, review of The American Counties, 4th ed., p. 288; August, 1994, review of Facts about the States, 2nd ed., p. 2070; October 15, 1994, Carolyn Mulac, reviews of Facts about the Presidents, 6th ed. and Famous First Facts, 4th ed., pp. 447–448; August, 1998, review of Presidential Fact Book, p. 2045; November 15, 1998, review of Famous First Facts, 5th ed., p. 609; March 15, 2002, review of Facts about the Presidents, 7th ed., p. 1274.
- Book Report, March, 1999, Bonnie Morris, review of Presidential Fact Book, p. 76.
- Choice, February, 1990, J. Campbell, review of Facts about the States, p. 932.
- Current Biography Year Book, November, 1985, "Kane, Joseph Nathan, " pp. 211–215.
- Library Journal, Anne Washburn, review of Famous First Facts, 4th ed., p. 249.
- Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, spring, 1974, review of The American Counties, p. 215.
- Reference Services Review, July, 1973, review of The American Counties, 3rd ed., p. 14; spring, 1985, Gary D. Barker and Carol Burroughs, review of The American Counties, 4th ed., p. 38.
- School Library Journal, May, 1982, review of Famous First Facts, 4th ed., p. 18; May, 1990, Jim Weigel, review of Facts about the States, p. 21.
- School Library Media Quarterly, fall, 1988, review of Famous First Facts, 4th ed., p. 41.
- Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1990, Victoria Yablonsky, review of Facts about the Presidents, 5th ed., p. 67; October, 1994, Sarah A. Hudson, review of Facts about the States, 2nd ed., p. 245.
- Washington Post Book World, January 31, 1971, review of The Pocket Book of Famous First Facts, p. 11.
- Wilson Library Bulletin, November, 1970, review of Nicknames and Sobriquets of U.S. Cities and States, p. 311; March, 1973, review of The American Counties, p. 609; May, 1980, review of Nicknames and Sobriquets of U.S. Cities, States, and Counties, 3rd. ed., p. 590; January, 1990, review of Facts about the Presidents, 5th ed., and Facts about the States, pp. 127–128; January, 1991, Cathi Alloway, review of Facts about the States, p. 28.