11 of the Greatest Pranks of All Time

Rebecca O'Connell / istock
Rebecca O'Connell / istock

Think that time you filled your friend’s dorm room with hundreds of water-filled plastic cups was impressive? These large-scale pranks made headlines around the world—and will give you something to aspire to.

1. BBC ANNOUNCES THAT BIG BEN IS GOING DIGITAL.

In 1980, a BBC World Service news announcement reported that Big Ben would be given a digital display. Not only that, the iconic clock’s now-useless hands would be given away to the first four people who called in. While most people reacted with shock and anger, one Japanese seaman immediately called the station with hopes of claiming his prize.

2. AN ICEBERG APPEARS IN SYDNEY HARBOUR.

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On April 1, 1978, residents of Sydney, Australia, awoke to find a gigantic iceberg floating in Sydney Harbour. Days before the prank, electronics entrepreneur Dick Smith announced that an iceberg he had towed from Antarctica would be arriving in Sydney the following week (to give the exact date, he felt, would be a tip-off). And sure enough, there it was. The public was agog at the spectacle—the Australian navy even called Smith to ask if he needed help mooring his iceberg—until a rainstorm revealed the iceberg for what it truly was: A barge covered in sheets of white plastic and fire-fighting foam.

3. TACO BELL BUYS THE LIBERTY BELL.

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In 1996, Taco Bell tried to take corporate sponsorship to a whole new level by buying a bit of history. On April 1, the fast food chain took out full-page ads in six of the country’s biggest newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, announcing that "in an effort to help the national debt," it had purchased the Liberty Bell. According to the (fictional) bulletin, the Liberty Bell would remain available to the public but would split its time between Philly and Taco Bell's headquarters in Irvine, California.

Distressed calls (including from aides to two U.S. senators) to the National Park Service and Taco Bell headquarters prompted Taco Bell to issue a second—this time real—press release revealing the hoax and pledging to donate $50,000 for the Liberty Bell’s upkeep.

4. A BRITISH NEWS SHOW CONVINCES VIEWERS THAT SPAGHETTI GROWS ON TREES.

"It isn't only in Britain that spring this year has taken everyone by surprise," BBC current affairs program Panorama began a broadcast by saying in 1957. "Here in the Ticino, on the borders of Switzerland and Italy, the slopes overlooking Lake Lugano have already burst into flower, at least a fortnight earlier than usual. But what, you may ask, has the early and welcome arrival of bees and blossom to do with food? Well, it’s simply that the past winter, one of the mildest in living memory, has had its effect in other ways as well. Most important of all, it’s resulted in an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop."

The three-minute segment included footage of Swiss spaghetti harvesters pulling the pasta off tree branches. Hundreds of Britons, many of who didn’t eat the Italian dish regularly, called the BBC to ask how they could grow a spaghetti tree of their own. Without missing a beat, the BBC replied, "Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."

5. WISCONSIN STUDENTS MOVE LADY LIBERTY TO LAKE MENDOTA.

University of Wisconsin students Leon Varjian and Jim Mallon made a bold campaign promise in order to win election to the Wisconsin Student Association in 1978: They would bring the Statue of Liberty to Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota. The two won the election and, in February 1979, they set out to make good on their pledge. It took Varjian and Mallon three days—and $4000 of student fees—to assemble their Lady Liberty proxy out of plywood, chicken wire, papier-mâché, and muslin cloth and assemble it on the frozen lake.

This wasn’t Varjian’s first prank (although it may be his most time-consuming); in 1977 he petitioned to have the school named the "University of New Jersey" (Varjian’s home state) so that "students could go to a fancy East Coast school without moving." Mallon, on the other hand, would go on to create the cult comedy television show Mystery Science Theater 3000.

6. MIT STUDENTS BUILD A GIGANTIC GAME OF TETRIS.

Students at MIT devised the idea of turning the 295-foot tall Green Building on campus into a larger-than-life, playable Tetris game in 1993—and in 2012, they finally made it a reality. It took the hackers four years of planning and two months of sleepless nights in order to construct what the MIT student newspaper The Tech called the "holy grail of hacks." Through a complicated system of wirelessly controlled LED lights, the talented engineers transformed 153 of the building’s windows into the falling colored blocks, which were controlled by players at a podium.

ListVerse

During "The Great Rose Bowl Hoax" of 1961, Caltech students orchestrated a surprise for the University of Washington Huskies during their halftime card stunt show (in which people in the stands used signs to spell out messages of support for their team). A crafty group of Caltech students broke into the dorm housing Washington’s cheerleaders and changed each of their thousands of instruction note cards. During halftime, the prank went off without a hitch: When the Huskies fans flipped their signs over, they spelled out "Caltech." The prank made national news.

The best part of the mischief? Caltech doesn’t even have a football team. The Huskies were playing the University of Minnesota in that Rose Bowl game.

8. NIXON ANNOUNCES HE'S RUNNING FOR RE-ELECTION.

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In 1992, National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation reported that Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 following the Watergate Scandal, had declared his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. To corroborate their story, NPR played a clip of Nixon declaring his intention to run and claiming, "I never did anything wrong, and I won't do it again."

As is the way of these things, callers flooded NPR with questions and cries of outrage. It wasn’t until the second half of the program that host John Hockenberry revealed that the whole broadcast had been an April Fools' Day joke. Comedian Rich Little—nicknamed "The Man of a Thousand Voices"—was responsible for "Nixon’s" speech.

9. SWEDISH NEWS STATION CONVINCES READERS THAT STOCKINGS CAN TURN THEIR BLACK-AND-WHITE TVS TO COLOR.

A 1962 April Fools' Day broadcast from what was then Sweden’s only television network, SVT, told viewers that they would be able to see the normally black-and-white broadcast in color… if they had the right materials.

"Technical expert" Kjell Stensson explained to viewers, in highly scientific details, that if they stretched a pair of nylon stockings over their television sets, the light would be filtered in such a way as to allow them to see the broadcast in color. To best see the results, Stensson recommended, viewers would need to move their heads from side to side as they watched. Needless to say, the thousands of viewers who fell for the hoax looked a little bit silly.

10. AN EASTER ISLAND FIGURE WASHES ASHORE IN THE NETHERLANDS.

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While Swedes were covering their TVs with stockings, the Dutch thought an iconic landmark had washed upon their shores. On March 29, 1962, a man walking on the beach near Zandvoort, Netherlands, found what he could only identify as an Easter Island statue. A few days later, on April 1, an expert flew in from Norway to inspect the figure and declared that it was indeed an authentic artifact, carried from the South Pacific to Europe. The statue was put on display in the town’s center for all to see.

By day’s end, the sculpture’s creator, a Dutch artist named Edo van Tetterode, had come clean and confessed to planting the "artifact" on the beach. The following year, Tetterode founded the National April 1st Society, and, in a tradition that would carry on until his death in 1996, awarded a small bronze Easter Island head trophy to the perpetrator of the year’s best prank.

11. ALABAMA CHANGES THE VALUE OF PI.

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The Alabama state legislature forever changed math, science, and the world as we know it in 1998, when it declared that the mathematical constant pi would now be valued at 3.0, instead of the usual 3.14159—or so claimed the April issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter. In a story by April Holiday for the "Associalized Press," experts argue for and against Alabama’s radical change, which was said to be made because 3.0 is a "biblical value." The story quickly went viral—email existed in 1998, you guys!—but no one knew the real extent of the hoax’s success until Alabama legislators began receiving hundreds of calls in protest.

This story originally ran in 2015.

12 Back-to-School Products to Add to Your Shopping List

Kritchanut/iStock via Getty Images
Kritchanut/iStock via Getty Images

Before you know it, your long days (and often longer nights) will be booked with group projects, research papers, and probably some social events, too. It can be difficult to adjust to the sudden onslaught of new responsibilities that come during back-to-school season, but it can help if you feel prepared. Take a look at our 2019 must-have school supplies list to ensure that you’re well-equipped for whatever the fall semester throws at you.

1. Rocketbook Everlast Fusion; $35-$37

Rocketbook everlast fusion
Amazon

Do yourself and the environment a favor and check out the Rocketbook Everlast Fusion, a notebook with 42 reusable pages that will prevent you from ever having to buy another sheet of paper. With seven different page templates for planning, listing, goal-setting, note-taking, sketching, scheduling, and sharing big ideas, the Rocketbook is perfect for students of all ages and disciplines. It comes with one erasable Pilot FriXion pen, and you can also use any other Pilot FriXion utensils on it, markers and highlighters included. What happens when you’ve written on all 42 pages and you’d like to save your work? Simply scan your pages with the free Rocketbook app and upload them to the cloud service of your choice—Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, Slack, iCloud, and more. You can get the executive-sized, 6-inch-by-8.8-inch Rocketbook for $35, or the regular letter-sized, 8.5-inch-by-11-inch version for $37.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Bob Ross Agenda; $16

Bob Ross agenda
Amazon

Because Bob Ross understands the importance of going with the flow, this calendar agenda lists only the days of the week, but no dates. Don’t feel like writing anything down in October? Skip it completely without the guilt of seeing blank pages in your planner. Each two-page spread pairs the days of the week on one side with a picturesque, tranquil Bob Ross painting on the other. You can also personalize your calendar entries with Bob Ross-themed stickers included in the back of the agenda, featuring catchphrases like “Be a gentle whisper,” “Just relax and watch it happen,” and “Let’s get crazy!”

Buy it: Amazon

3. Wild Rose Large Planner; $37

papersource wild rose large planner
Paper Source

For those happy to adhere to a date-specific planner, here’s a lovely gold-accented floral option from Paper Source. The 7-inch-by-8.5-inch agenda includes both monthly and weekly calendar pages, so you can see the big-picture overview of your month as well as your day-by-day tasks. There are pages for notes, important dates, and contacts, plus a pocket folder, ruler, and quotes to inspire you. And, because we all love a bit of decoration, there are sticker sheets in the back that feature dainty doodles of flowers, champagne glasses, and more.

Buy it: Paper Source

4. Bluetooth Portable Keyboard; $45-$55

Bluetooth plugable portable foldable keyboard
Amazon

Unburden yourself (and your possibly overstuffed tote bag) from the need to carry around both your tablet and laptop by investing in this portable Bluetooth keyboard that folds into a package smaller than a paperback book and has separate compatibility modes for Android, iOS, and Windows. You only have to charge it once every few weeks, but don’t worry about forgetting—you can always plug it right into your device with the included USB cord. The handy gadget also comes with a case, which doubles as a stand for your electronic device. Though the 11.5-inch-long standard-sized keyboard might be the first choice for those with standard-sized fingers, there’s also a 10-inch compact option for fans of especially miniature things.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Park Foundation Water Bottle; $40

National Parks Foundation water bottle
DICK'S Sporting Goods

These hip Hydro Flask water bottles are each decorated with a design of one of America’s most cherished national parks, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Joshua Tree, and Olympic National Parks. The 21-ounce, stainless-steel bottles feature double-walled vacuum insulation that will not only keep your beverage hot for up to 12 hours or cold for 24, but will also prevent condensation from forming on the bottle and soaking whatever park pamphlets you’ve got tucked inside your backpack.

Buy it: DICK’S Sporting Goods

6. Herschel Backpack; $56-$80

herschel navy backpack
Amazon

Herschel backpacks have become a standard for students, professionals, and practically all other people, in part because there’s a color or pattern to match every unique personality. In addition to representing your individuality, they’ll also last you many years, keep your shoulders comfortable with padded straps, and provide you with the perfect amount of space to store your laptop, schoolbooks, case files, overnight toiletries, and snacks. Peruse Amazon’s extensive collection to find out which one best fits you.

Buy it: Amazon

7. PacSafe Anti-Theft Backpack; $130

pacsafe anti-theft backpack
Luggage Designers

If you’ve ever decided to crank out an essay or project in a café, you’re probably familiar with the quandary of needing a bathroom break but not wanting to lose your seat or leave your belongings unattended. Instead of asking a potentially untrustworthy stranger if they can watch your stuff, try PacSafe’s anti-theft backpack, which boasts lockable zippers and straps, so you can fasten your backpack right to your table; the fabric and straps contain wire mesh, so nobody will be able to cut them (without some serious tools, that is). The Nylon backpack can fit a 15-inch laptop and includes several inside pockets to help you stay organized; you can also detach the straps and carry it like a small briefcase using the handle on the side.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Syver Wireless Speaker and Earbuds; $100

wicked audio syver bluetooth speaker and earbuds
Wicked Audio

Music-streaming services like Spotify make it possible for you to create an epic soundtrack for your life virtually everywhere you go, whether it’s a simple walk between classes or a backyard barbecue with your roommates and 50 of your closest friends. Check out Wicked Audio’s Syver, a two-in-one device that includes a Bluetooth speaker and wireless earbuds so you can toggle seamlessly between personal listening and party listening. Enhanced bass and noise isolation ensure you’re hearing the music exactly as the artists intended it, and the devices are also waterproof, so they’re safe from spilled drinks, pools, inclement weather, and the toilet.

Buy it: Wicked Audio

9. Fineliner Pens; $9

taotree fineliner pens
Amazon

Taotree’s Fineliner pens are a bullet journaler’s best friend, but you don’t have to be a master of organization to take advantage of these 24 brightly colored, versatile utensils. You could use them to color-code your class notes, pair them with a coloring book for the ultimate de-stressing session, or design your own fine-ink drawings. They dry quickly, won’t bleed through your paper, and have a soft-edged triangular shape for easy gripping. With an average 4.5-star review on Amazon, these pens will add color and character to all of your written projects.

Buy it: Amazon

10. PackIt Freezable Lunch Bag; $20

packit freezable lunch bag
Amazon

With PackIt’s freezable lunch bag, you’ll never again have to jam ice packs around your meal-prepped containers—as long as you remember to pop the bag in the freezer the night before you’re planning to use it. The walls are insulated with a freezing gel that will refrigerate your food until you’re ready for lunch. It zips closed to keep the cold in, collapses for easy storage, and includes a plastic buckle on the top so you can easily clip it to your backpack or bag. It also comes in a lively assortment of designs like cartoon cats, unicorns, mermaids, and cherries (and, of course, many more traditional patterns like polka dots, stripes, and camouflage).

Buy it: Amazon

11. Magnetic Dry-Erase Board; $15-$54

magnetic dry-erase board
Amazon

Whether you need to leave chore-related messages on the fridge for your roommates or homework-related messages for yourself in your locker, Yuc has a magnetic dry-erase board in every size for every situation. The smallest is 12 inches by 8 inches, the largest is 29 inches by 21 inches, and there are even weekly and monthly options so you can see your schedule at eye level. The boards are stain- and wrinkle-resistant, and each comes with a rectangular magnetic eraser, plus five different-colored fine-tipped markers whose caps also double as magnetic erasers.

Buy it: Amazon

12. SnackSack Subscription Box; $25/month

SnackSack Subscription
Amazon

Since getting back into the swing of school is always busy and exhausting, it’s easy to forgo a commitment to healthy eating and instead reach for the nearest bag of Doritos to keep you going. The SnackSack subscription box will help you make sure that doesn’t happen (too often). Each month, you’ll receive a package with 11 to 14 carefully curated, deliciously satisfying healthy snacks like bars, cookies, chips, nuts, seeds, sweets, and popcorn to support you through every all-nighter and last-minute group project—and there are vegan and gluten-free options, too.

Buy it: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

12 Facts About Netflix, Recommended For You

kasinv/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus
kasinv/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus

Netflix has become the world’s intravenous line for filmed entertainment. And like any media empire, it has a few stories of its own to tell. Take a look at some lesser-known, non-buffering facts about the streaming giant.

1. Early Netflix subscribers got a lot of Chinese pornography.

Addict man at computer laptop watching porn internet addiction concept
OcusFocus/iStock via Getty Images

In 1998, Netflix was still in the business of selling as well as renting DVDs. To try and offer consumers something new, co-founder Marc Randolph decided to offer footage of President Bill Clinton’s Grand Jury testimony about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky. But according to the book Netflixed, the duplicating house had a mix-up: out of the 1000 customers who ordered Clinton's interview, a few hundred received discs full of hardcore Chinese pornography.

2. Netflix was originally called Kibble.

Choosing a name for the company was a drawn-out process. Directpix.com, Replay.com, and other names were considered; so was Luna.com, which was the name of Randolph’s dog. When the company was being incorporated, he named it Kibble.com until they could decide on something permanent.

3. Netflix executives used to make house calls.

From the beginning, Netflix has been preoccupied with seeing how users interact with its software in order to select titles. In the late 1990s, subscribers near the company’s location in Los Gatos, California were reached via telephone and asked a series of questions. Then staffers would ask if they could stop by to watch them use the site. Surprisingly, most agreed. Netflix brought them coffee, a small investment for gaining valuable information about their usage.

4. Netflix got Dennis Quaid to sing.

For a 2006-2007 publicity tour, Netflix decided to screen films in thematically-correct locations: For example, Field of Dreams was shown in the “real” Iowa cornfield-slash-baseball diamond featured in the movie. But the company also wanted actors to make appearances. Their approach: offer to let those with bands perform for the crowds. Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis, Dennis Quaid, and Kevin Bacon all agreed to the barter deal. Quaid and his band, The Sharks, played in New Orleans before a screening of his film The Big Easy.

5. Netflix has made a science out of spoilers.

Because so much of Netflix’s high-profile content can be “binged” in a single weekend, the company commissioned cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken to examine how spoilers affect a person’s viewing habits. McCracken identified classifications of spoiler-prone people by whether they ruin a plot twist intentionally or hold it over others. (Some people are “Coded Spoilers,” too self-aware to let anything slip. These people are your friends.) His verdict? Some people enjoy the power they get from having knowledge of spoilers. But if a show is good enough, knowing about key scenes won't dissuade viewers from watching.

6. Netflix staffers think you decide on a movie in two minutes.

Apple iPad displaying Netflix app, Black with Reflection
bmcent1/iStock Editorial via Getty Images

Netflix spends more than $150 million on improving their recommendation system every year, trying to arrange selections based on what they think you might like. That kind of personalized menu is necessary: The company estimates that users spend only two minutes browsing for a title before choosing one or opting for another diversion entirely.

7. Netflix staffers also think you might be kind of a liar. 

You can stop trying to impress Netflix with the streaming version of keeping Ulysses on your coffee table. In a 2013 WIRED interview, Carlos Gomez-Uribe—the company's vice president of product innovation from 2010 to 2016—noted that viewers often report viewing documentaries or esoteric foreign movies. “But in practice,” he said, “that doesn’t happen very much.”

8. the first "netflix original" was an abstract test footage short.

In order to test frame rates and how their streaming service handles different kinds of content, Netflix produced 11 minutes of test footage in 2011 that can be viewed by typing “example show” in their search engine. Cut together (as seen above), the shorts become a very strange, very abstract art film, with an unidentified man juggling and reciting Shakespeare. (But not, sadly, juggling while reciting Shakespeare.)

9. Netflix binge-watching might correlate with depression. 

A 2015 study by the University of Texas found that respondents who claimed to binge Netflix shows were more likely to suffer from depression, lack of self-control, or loneliness. The good news? The sample group was small—only 316 people—and the university’s definition of “binge-watching” was as low as two episodes. Amateurs. 

10. There’s a secret Netflix menu.

Netflix website showing on screen laptop with macbook pro at cafe
wutwhanfoto/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus

No, not that kind of secret menu. Pressing Shift + Alt + a left mouse click brings up a troubleshooting menu that allows you to adjust the bit rate of a stream so it doesn’t buffer. (On a Mac, it's Shift + Option + click.) The picture quality won’t be as good, but it’s better than a pixelated Demogorgon.

11. There was once a glitch in the Netflix matrix. 

In 2014, Netflix’s content descriptions became odd amalgamations of two different titles to create one completely nonsensical listing. The summaries were quickly fixed, but not before someone took several screen shots of the mishaps.

12. You'll soon be able to stream Netflix in a Tesla.


Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

In July 2019, Tesla founder Elon Musk informed Tesla owners they would soon be able to stream both Netflix and YouTube in their cars, an attractive option for anyone looking to keep passengers occupied. But there's a catch: The services only work when the cars are parked. The feature will be available in newer-model cars at a date to be determined.

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