Tom Lehrer Invented Jello Shots to Skirt The Military’s No Alcohol in Bases Policy

(Photo by Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns)

Tom Lehrer is one of the more interesting people of the last 100 years. He is a man of many gifts, though he has sometimes used those gifts for outside-of-the-box ideas. After being drafted, he spent three years in the Army and was dismayed by the ban of alcohol at Army bases. So he came up with quite an ingenious way of getting around that rule.

Tom Lehrer’s Upbringing

Tom Lehrer cuts into a cake in 1959
Tom Lehrer cuts into a cake in 1959 (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Lehrer was born in 1928 in New York City and grew up on the Upper East Side. His talent for pretty much everything was noticed at an early age, and he was deemed a childhood prodigy. While he received classical piano training, he was much more interested in the day’s popular music. And as a teenager, he began to compose his own show tunes.

Lehrer graduated from High School at only 15 years old and attended Harvard University. He continued to write cheeky songs about the campus, though mostly to entertain his friends. Upon graduating from school, Lehrer began a teaching career and worked at Harvard, Wellesley, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. At the same time, he continued to write songs and worked as a researcher at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.

Tom Lehrer’s Time In The Military

A tray of Denver Bronco themed Jello shots
A tray of Denver Bronco themed Jello shots (Photo By RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Drafted in 1955, Lehrer certainly stood out amongst his fellow soldiers. At this period, it was pretty common for soldiers to lack a high school diploma, and Lehrer had a Masters’s Degree from Harvard. At the same time, the scholar liked to party just as much as any of his mates.

Unfortunately for them, the Army had banned alcohol from bases. So Lehrer put his big brain to work to develop a solution. Many years later, he told San Francisco Weekly, “That’s amazing how that got around! What happened was I was in the Army for two years, and we were having a Christmas party on the naval base where I was working in Washington, D.C. The rules said no alcoholic beverages were allowed. And we wanted to have a little party, so this friend and I spent an evening experimenting with Jell-O. It wasn’t a beverage.”

The former soldier continued:

“And we finally decided that orange Jell-O and vodka was the best. We tried gin and vodka and various flavors and stuff — of course you can’t sample too much. So we went over to her apartment and we made all these little cups and we thought I would bring them in, hoping that the Marine guard would say, ‘OK, what’s in there?’ And we’d say, ‘Jell-O.’ and then he’d say, ‘Oh, OK.’ But no, he didn’t even ask. So it worked. I recommend it. Orange Jell-O.”

Life after the Army

Lehrer only let on what his job was in the military a few years back. The scientist worked in the NSA. When he served, the existence of the National Security Administration was classified.

Lehrer returned to study at Harvard and continued teaching after his time in the service. In 1972, he took a position at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and remained there until his retirement in 2001.

The scientist also continued with his life-long hobby of creating music. His albums touched on many different experiences in his life, including his time at Harvard, his service in the military, and a variety of scientific topics. And all of the songs were humorous in nature.

The 93-year-old Jello shot creator is still alive today.