It Began with a Train Ride

From the windows, not yet mended landscapes recall human history's bloodiest conflict. That's when chance appoints two travelers with a penchant for pondering man's potential.

Seventy years ago, the musings and aspirations of two high-minded British aristocrats gestated into what we know today as Mensa.

Oct. 1, 1946, marks the high-IQ society’s formal inception because that’s when one of its founders, Roland Berrill, printed the organization’s first literature — the anniversary further codified 30 years later when cofounder Lancelot Lionel Ware unveiled a plaque affixed to the outside of the building at 12 Saint John Street, Oxford, that reads:

The International Society
MENSA
began here 1 October 1946

Formal anniversary aside, a more punctilious retracing of Mensa’s origins marks an unknown August day one year earlier. Mere months after the end of World War II, a train advances through the English countryside. From the windows, not yet mended landscapes recall human history’s bloodiest conflict, the devastating results of ingenious engineering and insipid comportment.

That’s when chance appoints two travelers with a penchant for pondering man’s potential.

*   *   *

Imagine the tattered, war-torn carriage of a rattling, neglected British train approaching the prosperous Surrey town of Godalming on a hot August day. The younger man was slender, unobtrusive, had a receding chin and a reserved, very English upper class style and manner. He was studying Hansard (the British Parliamentary Report) and, had he been reading The Times, Mensa might never have happened.

The older man was forty-nine, thick-set and study. He was smartly and prosperously dressed. He sported that which was unusual to the point of eccentricity in those days: a full, well-tended dark beard and moustache. He was above all things a noticeable man. His large, confident, protruding eyes turned masterfully this way and that as he subjected the carriage to his inspection. I am in no doubt that the quiet young Englishman was less than comfortable with these manners which may have had their origin more in the antipodal upbringing than in the English education of the Australian, Roland Berrill, the bearded starer and the future Founder of Mensa. For that is who it was.

Perhaps the English university student, Lancelot Lionel Ware, tucked his face even deeper behind the pages of Hansard until, in the end, it was they that caught the imperious eye of the unselfconscious Berrill.

“Is that Hansard that you are reading, young man?” Berrill’s firm, pleasant voice revealed his English upper class schooling, not his Australian birth.

“Obviously.” The slight young man’s accent was also confident and impeccably upper class. He read on. A firm English put-down.

There was a silent contest of wills and cultures. English traditional railway carriage reserve contented with confident colonial brashness and bonhomie.

Berrill persisted. He overcame Ware’s reserve and the two Mensa pioneers began to talk as the worn-out train rattled serenely on in the August sunshine through the bomb-shattered London suburbs. The men exchanged addresses and, unthinking, parted. But Mensa had entered the realm of the possible. A very, very, unlikely association had become just slightly less improbable.

— Victor Serebriakoff in Mensa, 1985