Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.
Social media pranks and viral videos have nothing on these truly historical technical hoaxes
Top 12 tech hoaxes of all time
The art of the hoax is woefully underappreciated. Properly executed hoaxes can be creative, cautionary, and (ideally) funny. The Digital Age has muddied the waters, though. Online scams, viral marketing, and even late-night TV gags have blurred the distinctions between hoaxes, pranks, stunts, and outright criminal fraud – so blurred them, in fact, that one might need an expert to distinguish them from one another. Luckily, one such expert exists: Alex Boese, author and curator of The Museum of Hoaxes.According to Boese, a hoax is "a deliberately deceptive act that has succeeded in capturing the attention (and, ideally, the imagination) of the public."
We take a look at 12 all-time great hoaxes in tech history.
The Mechanical Turk
The concept of automatons (mechanical men, basically) was hugely fashionable among the nerdy hipster set in the 18th century. In 1770, Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled his Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton that the inventor claimed could think, plan, reason, and defeat all comers in the sacred game of chess. For more than 50 years, The Turk toured Europe and America, baffling chess professionals and VIPs like Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon I. But the Mechanical Turk was no Deep Blue, the IBM computer that would defeat world champion Garry Kasparov some 200 years later. The ruse was eventually revealed by a subsequent owner: The Turk used old stage magic tricks and a sliding seat to conceal the human chess player hidden within.
Keely's etheric engine
History is packed with hustlers and con men who have pitched dubious alternative energy schemes, often perpetual motion machines based on dubious pseudo-science. One of the most audacious was proposed by John Keely, an American inventor -- we use the term lightly -- who debuted his "hydro-pneumatic multiplicator" in 1874. Keely fooled scientists, journalists, and a long list of wealthy patrons until his death in 1898. The following year, a newspaper investigation found that his laboratory was rigged with an ingenious system of concealed belts and tubes, powered by a secret air compression motor hidden two stories below.
"War of the Worlds"
One of history's most famous hoaxes was never intended to be a hoax at all. Or was it? On October 30, 1938, the CBS radio network broadcast "The War of the Worlds," based on H.G. Wells' story of Martian invasion. Directed by media wunderkind Orson Welles, the production was structured as a series of "live" news bulletins describing the unfolding alien invasion. Welles' narrative strategy was to leverage the dramatic possibilities of mass media, but listeners weren't accustomed to staged newscasts, and they freaked out. In his later years, Welles admitted that he wasn't entirely surprised by the public panic, suggesting that the incident may have been a deliberate hoax all along.
Nylon color television
The early days of television featured some of the greatest hoaxes ever, as congenital pranksters discovered a new medium to exploit. In 1962, Sweden's national broadcasting company, SVT, aired a special report claiming that black-and-white TVs could be made color, simply by stretching a nylon stocking over the screen. The news report featured a fake on-air expert droning on about the particular light-bending technology involved. In Sweden, legend holds that thousands of viewers fell for the prank, prompting a run (heh) on nylon stockings the following day. You can still enjoy the original broadcast if your Swedish isn't too rusty.
The Soviet Union joins Usenet
If the early days of TV were fertile for hoaxing, they were nothing compared to the early days of the Internet. The so-called "Kremvax Incident" is considered by many to be the very first Internet hoax. On April 1, 1984 (note the date), denizens of the proto-Internet forum Usenet were surprised to read a dispatch from Konstantin Chernenko, prime minister of the USSR: "This is at last the Socialist Union of Soviet Republics joining the Usenet network and saying hallo to everybody. One reason for us to join this network has been to have a means of having an open discussion forum with the American and European people..." The hoax was later revealed to be the inspired work of a European Usenet regular.
The "Good Times" virus
A computer virus hoax that went viral itself, the "Good Times" crisis of 1994 started simply enough. Online warnings began to circulate on AOL about a devastating computer virus spread by email -- specifically, emails with the subject header "GOOD TIMES!" Open the email, and the virus would send itself to everyone in your address book right before wiping your own hard drive. There was no such virus, it turns out, but the warnings themselves went viral, triggering a cascade of copycat warnings plus a wave of actual "GOOD TIMES!" emails -- real emails pretending to be the original nonexistent email. The Internet went down the rabbit hole and arguably never came back up.
To some degree, all technology is based on math. And in 1998, the noble field of mathematics played host to a hoax with a curious history. By way of endlessly forwarded emails, word got out that the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of pi to 3.0, in accordance with Biblical scripture. The story made headlines for a few days until it was discovered that the article was actually intended to be parody. The parody was itself a riff on previous urban legends going back decades. Those hoaxes, in turn, were based on an actual but obscure 1897 attempt to legislate pi in Indiana -- but for practical, not religious reasons. Twirling, twirling into madness!
The spud server
Everyone remembers the old high school experiment about generating a low-voltage electrical current from a potato. In 2000, a group of dotcom pranksters took the next logical step by putting together a "spud server" that hosted a handful of Web pages which loaded ... very ... slowly. Several media organizations picked up the story before the truth came out. But then a curious thing happened. Realizing the technical feasibility of the scheme, Fredric White made an actual spud server. Kind of: Only the CPU was potato-powered. His spec sheet still haunts the Internet.
The Microsoft iLoo
In 2003, a U.K. division of Microsoft issued a news release detailing the iLoo initiative -- a fully wired and Internet-ready porta-potty. The iLoo boasted a plasma screen, a "waterproof silicone keyboard," surround-sound speakers, and broadband Internet connection via wireless LAN. The press, predictably, went crazy, and Microsoft issued a bulletin that it was all a hoax. Or was it? A follow-up press release said that, in fact, the iLoo really was an active project at one point, but had been abandoned. The incident inspired at least one immortal news headline, from (naturally) The New York Post: "Software titan poo-poos iLoo."
The tauntaun sleeping bag
Since the dawning of the new millennium, technology hoaxes have become, almost literally, a daily affair. There are so many fake commercials and viral marketing stunts in play that you have to dig for interesting variations on the genuine hoax story. One Hall-of-Famer came down the pike in 2009, when online retailer ThinkGeek advertised the Tauntaun Sleeping Bag as an April Fool's joke. The fake sleeping bag proved to be so popular that ThinkGeek secured the rights from LucasFilm and turned a hoax into an actual product line.
The "Death Star" petition
In keeping with the Star Wars theme, a public policy initiative rose to the level of classic hoax last year. The federalWe The People website allows any citizen to file a petition on any issue. Gather enough signatures, and the petition will be reviewed. When more than 25,000 signed a petition for the U.S. government to build a Death Star, the press got involved, and White House technology adviser Paul Shawcross issued a reply. The salient points: "The Administration does not support blowing up planets" and "why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?" Solid jokes for a science adviser.
Reseller News After Hours