Over the next month, we’re celebrating technology and innovation in a new series called Bright Sparks. As part of the series, we’re bringing back some of our favourite articles about the people and ideas that are changing the world with technology.
This story is from The Boy Who Stayed Awake for Eleven Days, an episode of Witness produced and presented by Lucy Burns. To listen to more episodes of Witness from the BBC World Service, please click here.
At the tail end of 1963 in America, the Beach Boys were playing on the radio, the Vietnam War had begun to draw in US involvement, high school kids were on their Christmas break and two teenagers were planning an experiment that would capture the nation’s attention.
It ended on 8 January 1964; 17-year-old Randy Gardner had managed to stay awake for 11 days and 25 minutes.
Bruce McAllister, one of the high school students who came up with the idea, says it stemmed from the simple need to come up with a science fair project. Teamed with the creativity and cockiness that goes with teenage years, Bruce and his friend Randy decided they wanted to beat the world record for staying awake – which at the time was held by a DJ in Honolulu, who'd managed 260 hours, or just under 11 days.
“[The] first version of it was [to explore] the effect of sleeplessness on paranormal ability,” McAllister explains. “We realised there was no way we could do that and so we decided on the effect of sleep deprivation on cognitive abilities, performance on the basketball court. Whatever we could come up with.”