4 of History's Greatest Hoaxes

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The Heene family's Balloon Boy hoax is still lingering in the news this week. Will charges be filed? Is a reality show in the works? Do you really care? We're guessing you don't. So instead, let's look back at four historical hoaxes.

1. The "Computer" That Outsmarted Napoléon

Centuries before Deep Blue started whuppin' on Russian grand masters, a chess-playing automaton nicknamed "the Turk" was thrashing all manner of chess players. Atop a wheeled wooden cabinet was a seated, life-sized mannequin made of wood and dressed in Turkish garb. The Turk held a chessboard in his wooden lap, and he beat 'most all comers—including Napoléon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. Premiering in the 1770s, the creation of Wolfgang von Kempelen moved its wooden arms, seemingly without human assistance, around the board. The secret? The Turk's arms were operated by a diminutive chess expert crouched inside the cabinet, who operated gears and pulleys to move the Turk's arms. After traveling the world for almost a century, the Turk ended up mothballed in Philadelphia—where it was destroyed in a fire in 1854. [Photo is of John Gaughan's reconstruction of "The Turk."]

2. Microsoft Buys the Catholic Church!

microsoft-logo.jpgWhile the pranksters are still unknown, few press releases have had the impact of the 1994 doozy sent out supposedly by Microsoft, announcing Bill Gates's purchase of the Catholic Church. As reported, Microsoft not only would get sole electronic rights to the good book, but also would pitch in to the church's efforts, namely by engineering a means for delivering the sacraments online. Needless to say, the prank tricked a few folks. So many customers rang up Microsoft in protest that the distraught company finally felt obligated to clear up the mess via (you guessed it!) another press release. The statement full-out denied the allegations, and further said that it hoped to alleviate customer concerns by declaring that the company had no intentions of purchasing any religious institutions, Catholic or otherwise. Of course, it wasn't long before another "press release" surfaced, this one touting IBM's response to Microsoft: a merger with the Episcopal Church.

3. This Is Your Brain on Bananas

Bananas.jpgWhen the alternative newspaper the Berkeley Barb published a satirical article in 1967 claiming that smoking dried banana peels could lead to intoxication, they never expected to be taken seriously. But the oh-so-square national news media didn't get the joke, and publicized the report throughout the nation. Since then, countless wayward teens have been duped into smoking bananas (which can make you nauseated, but not pleasantly so). The hoax really took off, though, in 1970 with the publication of William Powell's The Anarchist's Cookbook, which covers all manner of craft pleasantries from building pipe bombs to manufacturing LSD. Not surprisingly, it also provides a recipe for turning your banana peels into "a fine, black powder" suitable for smoking. Even though no one's ever gotten high from bananas (although they are a great energy fruit, according to Dr. Atkins!), the Barb's hoax has had a stunning shelf life.

4. The Social Text Fiasco

social-text.jpgIn 1996, the respected cultural studies journal Social Text published several complex and dense articles, mainly because that's what respected academic journals do. But one, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," was a hoax by NYU physics professor Alan Sokal, who sought to prove that academic journals will publish any paper that uses big words. To the extent that Sokal's article is readable, it makes a grandly silly argument about the political implications of quantum gravity. Among other ludicrous assertions, the article claims that physical reality does not exist, that the laws of physics are social constructs, and that feminism has implications for mathematical set theory. It's hilarious, if you like that kind of thing, but it's also utter nonsense. After Sokal revealed his hoax in Lingua Franca, many academic journals beefed up their peer review process.

This article originally appeared in the mental_floss book Forbidden Knowledge, which is available in our store.

October 19, 2009 - 9:50am
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