April Fools' Special: History's Hoaxes
for National Geographic News
|Updated April 1, 2004|
At first glance, the headlines sound plausible enough to snooker unwary readers: Colorless, odorless, tasteless chemical kills thousands of people each year. Mild winter brings Switzerland a bumper spaghetti crop. Taco Bell Corporation purchases Liberty Bell from U.S. Government. Alabama legislature votes to change the value of the mathematical constant pi.
But they are all lies.
Happy April Fools' Day. To mark the occasion, National Geographic News has compiled a list of some of the more memorable hoaxes in recent history. They are the lies, darned lies, and whoppers that have been perpetrated on the gullible and unsuspecting to fulfill that age-old desire held by some to put the joke on others.
The Internet has given birth to a proliferation of hoaxes. E-mail inboxes are bombarded on an almost daily basis with messages warning of terrible computer viruses that cause users to delete benign chunks of data from their hard drives, or of credit card scams that entice the naive to give all their personal information, including passwords and bank account details, to identity thieves. Other e-mails give rise to wry chuckles, which is where this list begins.
Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide
City officials in Aliso Viejo, California, were so concerned about the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide that they scheduled a vote last month on whether to ban foam cups from city-sponsored events after they learned the chemical was used in foam-cup production.
Officials called off the vote after learning that dihydrogen monoxide is the scientific term for water.
"It's embarrassing," city manager David J. Norman told the Associated Press. "We had a paralegal who did bad research."
Indeed, the paralegal had fallen victim to an official-looking Web site touting the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide. An e-mail originally authored in 1990 by Eric Lechner, then a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, claimed that dihydrogen monoxide "is used as an industrial solvent and coolant, and is used in the production of Styrofoam."
Other dangers pranksters associated with the chemical included accelerated corrosion and rusting, severe burns, and death from inhalation.
Versions of the e-mail continue to circulate today, and several Web sites, including that of the Coalition to Ban DHMO, warn, tongue-in-cheek, of water's dangers.
No Drunk Web Surfing
In 1994 columnist John Dvorak penned an article for PC Computing magazine about a bill working its way through Congress that would make it illegal to surf the information superhighway while drunk or to discuss sexual matters over a public network.
Explaining the origin of the phony bill, SB 040194 (i.e., April 1, 1994), Dvorak wrote, "Congress, apparently thinks being drunk on a highway is bad no matter what kind of highway it is."
The bill was making its way through Congress unopposed, according to Dvorak, who quoted one anonymous Congressman as saying, "Who wants to come out and support drunkenness and computer sex?"
Dvorak urged his readers to send their comments to Lirpa Sloof. Apparently, some people missed the giveaway ("Lirpa Sloof" is "April Fools" spelled backward). A number of readers called Senator Edward Kennedy, who released an official statement denying that he was a sponsor of the bill.
Alabama Changes Value of Pi
The April 1998 newsletter put out by New Mexicans for Science and Reason contains an article titled "Alabama Legislature Lays Siege to Pi." It was penned by April Holiday of the Associmated (sic) Press and told the story of how the Alabama state legislature voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the round number of 3.
The ersatz news story was written by Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist Mark Boslough to parody legislative and school board attacks on the teaching of evolution in New Mexico.
At Boslough's suggestion, Dave Thomas, the president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, posted the article in its entirety to the Internet newsgroup talk.origins on April 1. (The newsgroup hosts a lively debate on creation vs. evolution.) Later that evening Thomas posted a full confession to the hoax. He thought he had put all rumors to bed.
But to Thomas's surprise, however, several newsgroup readers forwarded the article to friends and posted it on other newsgroups.
When Thomas checked in on the story a few weeks later, he was surprised to learn that it had spread like wildfire. The telltale signs of the article's satirical intent, such as the April 1 date and misspelled "Associmated Press" dateline, had been replaced or deleted.
Alabama legislators were bombarded with calls protesting the law. The legislators explained that the news was a hoax. There was not and never had been such a law.
TV AND NEWSPAPER HOAXES
Before the advent of the Internet, and even today, traditional media outlets such as newspapers, radio, and television, have sometimes hoaxed their audiences. The deceptions run the gamut from purported natural disasters to wishful news.
Swiss Spaghetti Harvest
Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes, a regularly updated Web site that also appeared in book form in November 2002, said one of his favorite hoaxes remains one perpetrated by the British Broadcasting Company.
On April 1, 1957, the BBC aired a report on the television news show Panorama about the bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland.
Viewers watched Swiss farmers pull pasta off spaghetti trees as the show's anchor, Richard Dimbleby, attributed the bountiful harvest to the mild winter and the disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.
The broadcaster detailed the ins and outs of the life of the spaghetti farmer and anticipated questions about how spaghetti grows on trees. Thousands of people believed the report and called the BBC to inquire about growing their own spaghetti trees, to which the BBC replied, "Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."
"It [was] a great satirical effect about British society," Boese said. "British society really was like that at that time. The British have a tendency to be a bit insulated and do not know that much about the rest of Europe."
Taco Liberty Bell
On April 1, 1996, readers in five major U.S. cities opened their newspapers to learn from a full page announcement that the Taco Bell Corporation had purchased the Liberty Bell from the U.S. government. The announcement reported that the company was relocating the historic bell from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Irvine, California. The move, the corporation said in the advertisement, was part of an "effort to help the national debt."
Hundreds of other newspapers and television shows ran stories related to a press release on the matter put out by Taco Bell's public relations firm, PainePR. Outraged citizens called the Liberty Bell National Historic Park in Philadelphia to express their disgust. A few hours later the public relations firm released another press announcement stating that the stunt was a hoax.
White House press secretary Mike McCurry got into the act when he remarked that the government would also be "selling the Lincoln Memorial to Ford Motor Company and renaming it the Lincoln-Mercury Memorial."
As a marketing ploy, the hoax was successful, PainePR said on their Web site. The firm says that more than 70 million Americans were exposed to the story, which resulted in a U.S. $500,000 sales increase for Taco Bell on April 1 and a $600,000 increase on April 2.
MISSING LINKS, MISSING MOON LANDING?
The threat of disaster and the wonders of science and nature are often evoked in the form of a hoax.
Strange, circular formations began to appear in the fields of southern England in the mid-1970s, bringing busloads of curious onlookers, media representatives, and believers in the paranormal out to the countryside for a look.
A sometimes vitriolic debate on their origins has since ensued, and the curious formations have spread around the world, becoming more and more elaborate as the years go by.
Some people consider the crop formations to be the greatest works of modern art to emerge from the 20th century, while others are convinced they are signs of extraterrestrial communications or landing sites of UFOs.
The debate rages even today, although in 1991 Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, two elderly men from Wiltshire County, came forward and claimed responsibility for the crop circles that appeared there over the preceding 20 years. The pair made the circles by pushing down nearly ripe crops with a wooden plank suspended from a rope.
In December of 1912 a 500,000-year-old skull that reportedly represented the missing link between modern humans and their prehistoric ancestors went on display at the British Museum in London. The specimen was recovered by an amateur fossil collector named Charles Dawson and put on display by Aurthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the Department of Geology at the museum.
The skull caused a stir among scientists, who felt that the lower jaw belonged to a different species, perhaps an ape. Eventually, however, those in favor of Piltdown man's authenticity won out, and the skull was given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawson and recorded in the textbooks.
Over the next several years Dawson recovered other bones from the Piltdown site and they were added to the collection. It was not until 1953, 37 years after Dawson died, that British Museum researchers Kenneth Oakley, Wilfred Le Gros Clark, and Joseph Weiner published a paper in which they announced that the fossil was a fake. They concluded that Piltdown man was a combination of human cranial pieces and the jawbone of an orangutan that had been stained to make it look old.
Moon Landing a Hoax?
Ever since NASA sent astronauts to the moon between 1969 and 1972, skeptics have questioned whether the Apollo missions were real or simply a ploy to one-up the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The debate resurfaced and reached crescendo levels in February 2001, when Fox television aired a program called Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?
Guests on the show argued that NASA did not have the technology to land on the moon. Anxious to win the space race, NASA acted out the Apollo program in movie studios, they said. The conspiracy theorists pointed out that the pictures transmitted from the moon do not include stars and that the flag the Americans planted on the moon is waving, even though there is thought to be no breeze on the moon.
NASA quickly refuted these claims in a series of press releases, stating that any photographer would know it is difficult to capture something very bright and very dim on the same piece of film. Since the photographers wanted to capture the astronauts striding across the lunar surface in their sunlit space suits, the background stars were too faint to see.
As for the flag, NASA said that the astronauts were turning it back and forth to get in firmly planted in the lunar soil, which made it wave.
The issue may have been put to rest when NASA pointed out that the show never questioned the more than 800 pounds (363 kilograms) of rocks brought back from the moon. "Geologists worldwide have been examining these samples for 30 years, and the conclusion is inescapable. The rocks could not have been collected or manufactured on Earth," NASA states on its Web site. Regardless, the conspiracy theory remains today.
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