Hoax & Forgery: 10 of History's Most Remarkable Hoaxes and Forgeries
10 of History’s Most Remarkable Hoaxes and Forgeries

10 of History’s Most Remarkable Hoaxes and Forgeries

Khalid Elhassan - February 18, 2018

10 of History’s Most Remarkable Hoaxes and Forgeries
Woodcut of an 1877 private demonstration of the Keely Engine. Fine Art America

Charlatan Uses Science-Sounding Gibberish to Hoax Millions Out of Investors

One of the 19th century’s most fascinating hoaxes was perpetrated by John Ernst Worrell Keely (1837 – 1898). Keely had tried his hand at many occupations in his youth, and by turns became a carpenter, painter, carnival barker, member of a theatrical orchestra, and a mechanic. His true calling however was as a conman. In 1872, Keely declared that he had invented a new engine that would revolutionize the world, by drawing its energy from a new physical force with unlimited power.

At the time, there was a widespread and mistaken belief that space was filled with something called a “luminiferous ether” – a hypothetical material that scientists thought was necessary for the movement of light or electric waves. Keely was no scientist, but he read about the luminiferous ether somewhere, then claimed to have figured out how to tap into and extract energy from it.

Keely declared that he had unraveled the secrets of the luminiferous ether, and could tap into the power of atoms in water. As he explained it, atoms were in a state of constant vibration, and by harnessing and channeling water’s vibrations in his revolutionary Keely engine, people could draw upon limitless energy. By getting the water’s atoms to vibrate in unison in accordance with the principles of the luminiferous ether, you could use its “etheric force” to power motors. In other words, the Keely Engine was a perpetual motion machine – an impossibility under the basic laws of physics, because it would violate the first or second laws of thermodynamics.

However, Keely demonstrated a prototype to guests in his workshop that convinced them that he was on to something. In the demonstration, Keely would pour water into the engine, then play a musical instrument to activate the machine with sound vibrations. The engine would come alive, providing pressures of up to 50,000 psi on display gauges. By harnessing that power, Keely demonstrated that iron bars could be bent, twisted, and snapped in two; thick ropes could be torn apart, and bullets could be driven through twelve inches of wood.

Keely made up scientific-sounding terms to describe the principles of his invention. He termed his engine a “vibratory generator”, and told observers that they were witnessing “quadruple negative harmonics”. Gullible investors were told that they would grow filthy rich off Keely’s “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacu-engine”. If a listener sounded skeptical, Keely would swamp him in a flood of science-y sounding phrases such as “vibratory negatives”, “atomic triplets”, “etheric disintegration”, and “atomic ether vibrations”.

The terms were pseudo-scientific gibberish, but they were effective. Within a short time, Keely convinced investors to hand over the equivalent of $20 million in 2017 dollars as startup capital, which he used to found the Keely Motor Company. In subsequent years, investors coughed up the equivalent of an additional 100 million dollars in today’s money for a stake in Keely’s company.

Keely closely guarded the secret of his invention, and for more than two decades, he refused to share its details with anybody. But he strung his investors along, by promising them that the perfection of a commercial version of his engine was right around the corner. During that time, gullible investors kept throwing money at him, despite the consensus of physicists that Keely was a charlatan, and that perpetual motion such as he promised was physically impossible. It was only after Keely died in 1898 that the secret of his engine was revealed. It had not been powered by water vibrations, but by a compressed air machine hidden two floors below, and connected to the Keely engine by concealed pipes and hoses.

10 of History’s Most Remarkable Hoaxes and Forgeries
Trofim Lysenko measuring the growth of wheat. The Atlantic

Quack Revives 19th Century Hoax, and Makes it Official Scientific Dogma of the USSR

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a 19th-century French biologist, theorized that physiological changes acquired by an organism during its lifetime could be passed on to its progeny. Thus, according to what came to be known as Lamarckian Inheritance, if you hit the gym and worked out hard to develop six-pack abs, you could pass six-pack abs on to your kids.

Lamarck was wrong: heritable traits are passed through genes, hardcoded with their own instructions, and subject to the occasional mutation. An organism’s genes neither know nor care what traits and characteristics the organism acquired during its lifetime. Your genes might pass on to your descendants a predisposition for six-pack abs, but only if they were already coded for such a predisposition. However, no matter how many sit-ups and ab crunches you do, it will have zero impact on whether your kids will have an easy time developing six-pack abs. By the late 19th century, only a few quacks still believed in Lamarckian Inheritance.

In the 1930s, however, Lamarckian Inheritance experienced an odd revival in the Soviet Union. That was when a quack named Trofim Lysenko modified Lamarckian Inheritance into a theory that came to be known as Lysenkoism. Lysenko claimed to have discovered that, among other things, rye could be transformed into wheat, wheat could be transformed into barley, and that weeds could be transformed into grain crops.

It was as scientific as a Medieval alchemist claiming the ability to transform lead into gold, and just as laughably ludicrous. However, in a sinister twist, Lysenko found a powerful supporter for his theories: Joseph Stalin. In the scary political environment of Stalin’s USSR, criticizing Lamarckian theories was equated with criticizing Stalin. You did not criticize Stalin, or even hint that you might disagree with Stalin if you knew what was good for you.

Challenging Lamarckian Inheritance was treated as political subversion and deviancy. The logic was chilling and lethal: Comrade Stalin endorses Lamarckism. You disagree with Lamarckism. Therefore you disagree with Comrade Stalin. That makes you a subversive, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, fascist agent, or capitalist stooge working to sabotage the Soviet Union.

Soviet scientists who challenged Lysenko and his revived Lamarckism were arrested by the NKVD, brutally interrogated, tortured, sent to the gulag where many died, or simply executed. Lysenko instigated a campaign to eliminate his opponents, in which more than 3000 mainstream biologists were fired, jailed, arrested, or executed. Before Lysenko, Russia and the Soviet Union had been world leaders in the field of genetics. However, genetic research disproved Lamarckian Inheritance, so genetic research was wholly abandoned. It would not be revived until after Stalin’s death in 1953, by which point the Soviets had fallen decades behind.


Sources & Further Reading

Anti Defamation League – A Hoax of Hate: The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion

Encyclopedia Britannica – Donation of Constantine

History Collection – The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats

Guardian, The – ­Keeley’s Trickster Engine

Museum of Hoaxes – The Cottingley Fairies

History Collection – Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History

Natural History Museum – Piltdown Man

New Yorker, The – Diary of the Hitler Diary Hoax

History Collection – Best April Fools’ Day Pranks and Hoaxes of All Time

Shen Yun Performing Arts – Three Kingdoms: Zhuge Liang Captures Arrows With Boats of Straw

Smithsonian Magazine – The Infamous “War of the Worlds” Radio Broadcast Was a Magnificent Fluke

Wikipedia – Piltdown Man

Wikipedia – Trofim Lysenko