April Fools' Special: History's Hoaxes

John Roach
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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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