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

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.

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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.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6 Priceless Treasures Lost in Shipwrecks
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In the lore around treasures lost at sea, most of the excitement goes to pirate’s gold and the sunken luxuries of the Titanic. But in the centuries of human seafaring, many lesser-known priceless objects, from literary manuscripts to scientific research, have been claimed by the depths. Here are some tales of those losses, from a lifetime of work by a 19th-century woman who was an expert in cephalopods, to a rare book by Dickens that went down with the Lusitania.

1. LOUIS DE JAUCOURT'S ANATOMICAL LEXICON

Always, always, always back up your work. Of course, that's easier now than it was in the 18th century, when French scholar Louis de Jaucourt dispatched his six-volume Lexicon medicum universale to his Amsterdam publisher, a move intended to evade French censorship. The medical dictionary, on which he'd spent 20 years, was completely lost when the ship it was on sank off Holland's coast. Luckily, Jaucourt rebounded when Denis Diderot asked him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, now considered one of the greatest works of Enlightenment thought, for which he used his notes from the lost manuscript. Jaucourt became the publication's most prolific author, penning 40,000 articles—so many he was nicknamed l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie, or the "slave of the Encyclopedia."

2. THE FIELDWORK OF ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, Welsh naturalist and explorer
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In 1852, following four years of research in the Amazon, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was ready to return to England. He loaded his copious notes, animal and plant specimens, and drawings onto the brig Helen. Just 26 days into the voyage, the vessel caught fire. Wallace only had time to hastily fill a tin box with a few drawings of fish and palms and some scientific notes before joining the crew in the lifeboat. After 10 days marooned at sea, they were rescued by the brig Jordeson—but most of Wallace's work was gone forever. As he lamented in an October 19, 1852 letter, "The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.” While he continued as a leading naturalist—albeit one overshadowed in his evolution research by Charles Darwin—Wallace was never able to reconstruct those years of fieldwork.

3. THE CEPHALOPOD RESEARCH OF JEANNE VILLEPREUX-POWER

Before Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s 19th-century research, most scientists thought the Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus, scavenged its shell from other animals. But by inventing the modern aquarium, Villepreux-Power could study the species first-hand, and witness how it grows and repairs its own shell. The breakthrough was one of many discoveries made by the pioneer in cephalopod research, one of the few women to achieve prominence in Victorian science. She might be better known today if it weren't for the fact that when she and her husband decided to move from Sicily to London, the vessel on which they’d shipped their possessions—including the majority of her drawings, notes, and equipment—foundered off the coast of France in 1843. After the devastating loss, she never published again.

4. A COPY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL OWNED BY CHARLES DICKENS

Sinking of the Lusitania
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When Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat realized the RMS Lusitania was doomed that fateful day in 1915, he dashed to his cabin, using the light from a few matches to try to find the literary treasures he’d brought aboard. These included original drawings by Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as an edition of A Christmas Carol owned by Charles Dickens himself. The edition was irreplaceable, since it included Dickens’s notes related to his 1844 copyright suit against the illicit republishing of his story. In the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson vividly describes Lauriat’s harrowing experience when the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland: Lauriat grabbed the leather briefcase containing the Dickens, but left the Thackeray sketches behind. Rushing out to the deck, he saw a lifeboat packed with women and children that was being dragged down by the sinking ship. He jumped in with the briefcase, yet was unable to free the lifeboat, and in the escape into the water he lost the precious cargo. Out in the waves, he managed to evade entanglement with an antenna, swim to a collapsible lifeboat, and survive. One of the few items he managed to save were photographs of his baby, which he told his wife were his "mascot."

5. WRITINGS OF JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN SILVA

Portrait of José Asunción Silva

Many Colombians can recite the first lines from the influential Modernist poet José Asunción Silva's "Nocturne III"—"A night / A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume / And incanting wing"—and it’s even printed in microtext on the 5000 Colombian peso bill. The poem, written in 1892, is believed to be a tribute to Silva’s half-sister. Silva suffered another blow in 1895, when many of his manuscripts, including a draft of a novel, were lost in a shipwreck. He left his diplomatic post in Venezuela, and dedicated all his time to reconstructing the drowned novel. But his melancholy continued: After visiting a doctor to ask the exact position of his heart, he shot himself in 1896. His rewritten novel—After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) —wasn’t published until 1925.

6. THE ART OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA LUSIERI

The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens by Giovanni Battista Lusieri
Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was a meticulous painter of the Italian landscape, particularly its classical ruins. In large panoramas and more compact watercolors, he depicted the Acropolis, views of Rome and Naples, and, his favorite, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some of his most striking works captured the volcano at night, illuminating the darkness with its orange glow. Lord Byron called him "an Italian painter of the first eminence." Yet his name is now obscure. This is partly due to the years he stopped painting to help Lord Elgin remove and ship the Parthenon Marbles to London. But when Lusieri's artwork was being sent home from Greece after his death in 1821, a shipwreck destroyed nearly half of it (including a spectacular 25-foot-long panorama of Athens), helping to ensure his fall from fame.

BONUS: PEKING MAN

A replica of the Peking Man Skull
A replica of the Peking Man Skull

When paleontologists discovered the bones of "Peking man" in a dig near Beijing in the 1920s, they were the oldest hominid fossils ever found. However, scientists can now only study the bones—thought to be about half a million years old—from casts. The Peking Man fossils were last seen in December 1941, but vanished during the Japanese occupation of China while they were being sent to the United States for safekeeping. There are many conjectures on their fate, from being secretly stored away in Japan, to being under a parking lot in China. Yet one enduring theory is that they were lost at sea on the Japanese freighter Awa Maru: In 1945, the ship was torpedoed in the Taiwan Strait by the USS Queenfish despite being guaranteed safe passage by the United States, leading to the loss of more than 2000 lives—and, it's said, the priceless Peking fossils [PDF].

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