Kane was the oldest of three children in his family born to Jewish parents. His father was Albert Kane and his mother was Hulda (Ascheim) Kane. At the time he grew up he lived at Manhattan's Upper West Side in New York City. He had brother called Albert and a sister called Ann.
Kane's grandfather on his mother's side was a wholesaler of woolens while his other 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 elementary school in New York City with much interest in world geography. The school was conveniently located directly across the street from his home. That school graduated well known personalities like Bennett Cerf (publisher of Random House) and Richard Rodgers (the composer). It also educated many high-court justices.
Townsend Harris High School is where Kane went for high school, one of New York City's elite public secondary schools.
Kane started attending 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 anticipating to use his engineering skills in World War I, however never saw military service. He had contracted influenza of the 1918 epidemic from which he nearly died.
Kane was first an editor for Academic Herald at Townsend Harris. There he interviewed key figures, one of them being John Wanamaker. Later he worked for the Jewish Press. Here he interviewed prominent people like H. G. Wells, Lord Balfour, and Vicente Blasco-Ibanez.
Kane then hired in at D. Auerbach & Sons of New York City at the end of World War I as their manager of the export department. This company was a confectionery manufacturer. They took advantage of Kane's knowledge of world geography, world currency, and his language abilities of French, German, and Spanish in addition to his native English. He worked for D. Auerbach & Sons for only a year and then hired in at Universal Export Corporation as their export manager for two years.
Kane began writing monthly articles on export matters and produced 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 their 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 airplane, Thomas Edison with his electric light bulb invention, Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, and Samuel F. B. Morse's invention of the telegraph. Starting in 1922 Kane spent about eleven months out of every year traveling around the United States as a free-lance, self-syndicated journalist. He did this extensive traveling through 1932. Kane was a seeker of 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.
Kane then in the late 1920s decided to write a book on the achievers of "firsts" whom history had forgotton. 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 out records on sales records, newspaper files, and filed patents. Additionally he obtained information from government departments and private organizations. He even researched in the Library of Congress. Often he would accidentally come across things even he was surprised about.
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.
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 other 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 at first hesitant. He was not sure there would be a market for this type of information. Kane then in a promotion scheme 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 cataloged 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 Afro-American 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
The New York Times on May 14, 1933, in an article wrote
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. This publication has been since been put out an additional five times.
From the idea of Famous First Facts in 1959 Kane decided to focus his attention on the White House. He wrote a book on the Facts about the Presidents. In this reference book Kane provided biographical information about all of the United States presidents.
Kane followed this up in 1989 with Facts about the States. The book provides information on each states 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 dramatizated "first fact" followed by an interview with the person that was the achiever of the fact or the achiever's descendant that could verify it. Some examples of his radio program were
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 even 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 of 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 exorbinant amount at the time. This program was later reintroduced and renamed "Break the $250,000 Bank." This time it featured outside "experts" instead of studio audience contestants.
Kane passed on some of his philosophy to an interviewer for Current Biography that was gathering information for his biography. He told the interviewer that at elementary school he would often ask a teacher when they had made a "factual" statement,
Kane pointed out to the interviewer that when he worked for the Jewish Press he interviewed famous people because he was,
Kane told another reporter that while getting his higher education the professors would assign certain books to read for the students. He would read something else,
Kane once told a reporter for The Associated Press,
Kane interviewing for an article for Liberty magazine (December 1938) told the interviewer that,
Kane pointed out in publishing his books that he was not attempting,
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 daunting work gather 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 told Myrna Olive, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, on his 100th birthday celebration in 1999 that he attributed his long life to,
Kane died on September 22, 2002, at the age of 103.
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.
Kane was so involved with his "firsts" that in his bank personal safety deposit box he 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 from 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!
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, September 27, 2002, by Richard Severo, "Joseph Nathan Kane Dies, Master of Minutiae Was 103," p. A27.
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.