Contest re-enacts first film sneeze

Plainsboro Public Library celebrates life and inventions of Thomas Edison.

By: Shanay Cadette
   PLAINSBORO — Five-year-old Prasiddhi Jain kicked off last Thursday’s "Everything Edison Sneezing Contest" with a quiet and dainty, "Achoo."
   Other sneezes were marked by loud bellows of, "Uhh! Uhh! Choo!" a dramatic sneezing performance that featured a cartwheel and a couple of body flops on the floor and a "Ha! Ha! Chew!" that ended with a high-pitched screech.
   The Plainsboro Public Library was turned into an impromptu "sneeze-fest," if you will, all in the name of celebrating the life, inventions and wide-ranging interests of Thomas Edison.
   Just so you know, the folks at the library have not gone crazy. There is a legitimate reason behind the first-ever sneezing contest.
   "The first moving picture in the world was the recording of a sneeze," explained Jinny Baeckler, director of the Plainsboro Public Library.
   And Thomas Edison created devices — a kinetograph to record moving images and a kinetoscope to view the results — that were used to film the earliest surviving copyrighted motion picture called "Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze" in 1894. The five-second, black-and-white film features one of Edison’s employees, Fred Ott, rearing back and sneezing.
   Because the library is honoring Edison throughout this and next month with its "Everything Edison" summer program, employees thought it would be fun to recreate images from some of Edison’s motion pictures and film them. The library received a $2,500 grant from the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission to hire a professional to capture the images and record them on a compact disc.
   Summer program director Emily Benjamin tried to recruit more adults for Thursday’s contest.
   "You want to go sneeze for the people?" a woman asked her companion.
   "Sneeze?" he asked in disbelief.
   But only one adult — Santi Malladi — entered the contest. In all, some 12 people signed up.
   After the first round, there was a five-way tie, so there had to be a "sneeze-off."
   The 12-year-old winner — Harshith Ravoori of Plainsboro — leaned back and sprung forward before letting a loud "Achoo!" rip.
   He received 27.3 points out of a possible 30 from the judges, garnering a big box of tissues, some pepper and a medal for his efforts.
   "I think it was the loudest — came from his belly," said Margaret Johnson, one of the judges for the event, about the winning sneeze. "He had the whole package."
   The contestants were judged on noise level, use of their body and facial expressions.
   Harshith’s 8-year-old sister, Navya Ravoori — who also competed — convinced her brother to sign up for the contest on the spur of the moment, so he said he didn’t really practice or prepare.
   He just stood up, and well, sneezed.
   "I just tried my best," Harshith said.