10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World
10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World

10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World

Khalid Elhassan - December 21, 2017

10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World
Illustration from an 1836 Italian version of The Great Moon Hoax. Smithsonian Magazine

The Great Moon Hoax

In the summer of 1835, excitement gripped America as a New York newspaper, The Sun, announced the recent discovery of life and civilization on the Moon. In a series of six articles, beginning on August 25th, the newspaper described how Sir John Herschel, the era’s leading astronomer, had used powerful telescopes to get a clear glimpse of the Moon’s surface. What he saw astonished him, and upended all human knowledge to date.

The astronomer’s accomplishments were truly stunning. “By means of a telescope of immense dimensions and an entirely new principle“, Sir John Herschel had discovered planets in other solar system, and established new and revolutionary theories. He had also “solved or corrected nearly every problem of mathematical astronomy“. All of that was just a tip of the iceberg: Herschel had discovered life on the Moon.

According to The Sun, Herschel’s telescope revealed that the Moon was teeming with life. From his observatory in the Cape of Good Hope, the astronomer saw oceans, rivers, and trees. A variety of animals roamed the lunar surface, including goats, buffalos, walking beavers, and unicorns. And flying above them all, were human-like creatures with bat wings who built houses and temples.

As detailed by The Sun in a 17,000 word six-part series, reprinted from The Edinburgh Journal of Science, Herschel had travelled to the Cape in 1834 to catalog the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. However, he discovered far more than stars with his powerful telescope when he turned it to the Moon. First, were hints of vegetation, a body of water, a beach, and a string of pyramids. As the focus was adjusted for sharper detail, herds of bison-like animals were seen. Next came blue goats, that looked like unicorns. Yet more animals, such as walking beavers, were described in the third installment.

The biggest shocker came in the fourth installment, which announced the discovery of hominids, about four feet tall, who flew with bat wings. “We scientifically denominated them as Vespertilio-homo, or man bat; and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures“, the article went on. That was when the mounting excitement grew into a fever pitch.

It was also when the authors discovered that they had greatly underestimated the public’s gullibility: the articles had been intended as satire, which the authors thought was obvious. But they ended up being taken as gospel truth. The authors eventually wound down the story with the telescope’s accidental destruction. It had been left exposed to the Sun, whose rays caused its lens to act as a burning glass, which started a fire that destroyed the telescope and the observatory. Needless to say, Sir John Herschel had never claimed the astronomical discoveries attributed to him, nor had he made any such lunar observations.

10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World
The Cardiff Giant. The Telegraph

The Cardiff Giant

On October 16th, 1869, workers digging a well behind the barn of William C. “Stub” Newell, in Cardiff, New York, struck stone about three feet down. Clearing the soil around the obstruction revealed a huge foot. With mounting excitement, the workers continued digging, and were astonished when they finally unearthed the petrified remains of a 10 foot tall man.

As news of the find spread, hundreds of archaeologists and scientists, and thousands of the curious, flocked to Newell’s farm, where he charged visitors 50 cents for a look. Newell made no claims about the giant’s authenticity, but invited visitors to draw their own conclusions. While it seemed to many observant people to be a crude statue, many more saw it as proof of the Bible’s assertions that giants had once walked the earth.

The Cardiff giant was actually a statue, created by an atheist named George Hull after a heated debate at a revival meeting about Genesis 6:4, which claimed that the earth had once been inhabited by giants. Hull bought a ten foot block of Gypsum in Iowa, and shipped it to Chicago, where he commissioned a stonecutter to shape it into the likeness of a man, after swearing him to secrecy. Chemicals were then applied to give the carving an aged look, and needles were used to puncture and pit its surface, making it look more weathered. Hull then shipped it to the farm of his cousin, William Newell, who buried it behind his barn in 1868. A year later, Newell hired workers to dig a well behind the barn, where they came across the buried hoax.

From the first, archaeologists, scientists, and other scholars who saw the Cardiff Giant declared it a fraud. However, many theologians and preachers stepped forth and passionately defended its authenticity, and crowds of the curious and faithful kept coming in ever greater numbers. Hull, who had spent the equivalent of about $50,000 in 2017 dollars, sold his share in the Cardiff Giant to a syndicate for about half a million in today’s money. The Giant was then moved to Syracuse, where it drew ever larger crowds.

Eventually, huckster PT Barnum offered the equivalent of a million dollars for the find. When the owners refused to sell, Barnum commissioned his own plaster copy and exhibited it in New York City, declaring it to be the authentic Cardiff Giant, and that the one in Syracuse was a fake. That brazenness worked, giving rise to the phrase, coined in reference to those paying to see Barnum’s copy, that “there’s a sucker born every minute“. Lawsuits about authenticity followed, and in the subsequent litigation, Hull finally confessed to the hoax. The court declared both Giants fakes, and ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.

10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World
Tymofin Lysenko speaking at the Kremlin. Distributed Republic

Lamarckian Inheritance and Lysenkoism

In the early 19th centuries, a French biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, theorized that physiological changes that an organism acquired during its lifetime can be passed on to its offspring. E.g.; that if somebody works out at a gym to build huge biceps, he could pass on huge biceps to his children. It became known as Lamarckian Inheritance. It turned out Lamarck was wrong, and traits are passed on through genes that are hard coded with their own instructions, subject to the occasional mutation.

The genes of a particular organism neither know nor care what traits and characteristics the organism acquired during its lifetime. One’s genes might pass on a predisposition for huge biceps if they were already coded for such a predisposition. However, doing arm curls at a gym will have no impact on whether one’s kids will have an easy time developing monster biceps. By the late 19th century, Lamarck’s theories had been debunked, and only had a limited following within a circle of quacks.

However, Lamarckian Inheritance experienced an odd revival in the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, a quack named Tymofin Lysenko modified Lamarckism into a theory that came to be known as Lysenkoism. Lysenko falsely 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 laughably ludicrous, but in a sinister twist, Lysenko found a powerful supporter for his cockamamie theories: Joseph Stalin. In the bizarre political environment of the Stalinist Soviet Union, criticism of Lamarckian theories came to be treated as criticism of Stalin. As Stalinist terror grew by leaps and bounds, it became clear that you did not criticize Stalin, or even hint that you might disagree with Stalin, if you knew what was good for you.

Criticism of Lamarckian Inheritance was treated not as academic, but as political subversion and deviancy. The logical chain was chilling, and lethal: Comrade Stalin endorses Lamarckism. You disagree with Lamarckism. Therefore you disagree with Comrade Stalin. It follows that you are a subversive, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, fascist agent, or capitalist stooge working to sabotage the Soviet Union.

In that environment, Soviet scientists who scoffed at the quackery of Lysenko and his revived Lamarckism were arrested by the NKVD, brutally interrogated, tortured, sent to the gulag where many died, or executed outright. Over 3000 mainstream biologists were fired, jailed, arrested, or executed in a campaign instigated by Lysenko to eliminate his scientific opponents. Russia and the Soviet Union had once been at the forefront of genetics, but research in that field, which disproved Lamarckian Inheritance and showed up Lysenko as a quack, was wholly abandoned. It would not be revived until after Stalin’s death in 1953, by which point the Soviets had fallen decades behind.

10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World
Piltdown Man. Pintrest

Piltdown Man

In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur English archaeologist, announced the discovery of human-like fossils in Piltdown, East Sussex. In a Pleistocene gravel bed, Dawson had found fossilized fragments of a cranium, jawbone, and other parts. Britain’s premier paleontologist pronounced the fossils evidence of a hitherto unknown proto-human species. They were also deemed the “missing link” between ape and man, proving the then-still controversial theory that man descended from apes.

The pronouncements were accepted uncritically by many leading British scientists. Further excavations in the vicinity were made in 1913 and 1914, during which stone tools were discovered. Two miles away, teeth and additional skull fragments were unearthed. So were animal remains, and a mysterious carved bone resembling a cricket bat. The excitement mounted with each new find.

The prevalent racism and ethno-nationalism of the era buttressed British scientists’ confirmation bias, causing them to interpret the “evidence” in the light most favorable to their preexisting prejudices. At the time, there was a growing, and as it ultimately turned out, correct, scientific belief that human evolution from ape to man had occurred in Africa. It was there that fossils of homo erectus, an early hominid, had been discovered. That however meant that the cradle of mankind was in Africa, and that all humans were of African origin. The notion that they were ultimately African was too jarring for many Europeans, including many in the British scientific community.

Piltdown Man offered a feasible alternative, and thus a convenient out, from the challenge posed to the racist theories of the day by humanity’s African origins. Moreover, if the “missing link” discovered in the English countryside was accurate, it would mean that Britain had played a prominent role in human evolution. It would also buttress the belief that Europeans – or at least the British – had evolved separately, and were not of African origins. Thus, the prevailing racist assumptions that Europeans were a distinct, and superior, branch of the human tree, could continue unchallenged.

In actuality, the Piltdown discovery was a crude hoax. However, because of a combination of ineptness, ethno nationalism, and racism, the Piltdown discovery was strongly embraced and defended by much of the British scientific establishment. It took four decades before Piltdown Man was debunked, making it one of history’s most successful scientific hoaxes. It was also one of history’s most damaging hoaxes. During those decades, few resources were directed at studying human evolution in Africa, where the actual missing links were ultimately discovered.

Despite the poor funding for African archaeological exploration, more proto-humans were discovered in Africa in the 1930s. Those finds, coupled with additional Neanderthal finds, left Piltdown Man as an odd outlier in human evolution. Nonetheless, the hoax had its powerful defenders, and it was not until 1953-1954 that the fossils were subjected to rigorous scientific reexamination. They turned out to be fragments of a modern human skull, only 600 years old, the jaw and teeth of an orangutan, and the tooth of a chimpanzee. Chemical testing showed that the bones had been stained to make them look older, and the ape teeth filed down to look more human-like. As to the perpetrator, it turned out to be a disgruntled museum employee getting back at his boss, Britain’s chief paleontologist, who had denied him a pay raise.

10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World
Patagonian Giants. Princeton

Patagonian Giants

During its circumnavigation of the globe, the Spanish expedition headed by explorer Ferdinand Magellan dropped anchor off Patagonia – a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America. There, they came across a naked giant singing and dancing on the shore, and Magellan ordered one of his men to make contact, singing and dancing in turn to demonstrate friendliness. It worked, and the giant was induced to meet Magellan. As described by a scribe who kept a diary that was later turned into a book account of the voyage: “When he was before us, he began to marvel and to be afraid, and he raised one finger upward, believing that we came from heaven. And he was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist“.

The explorers proceeded to make contact with the rest of his tribe, and in subsequent weeks, hunted with them, and built a house ashore to store their provisions. When Magellan prepared to finally depart, he wanted to take some Patagonians to display back in Spain. So he invited some aboard his ship with the lure of trinkets, got them drunk until they passed out, and placed them in chains. When the Patagonians came to, the ships were already underway, sailing away from their homeland. Sadly, the kidnapped Patagonians did not survive the voyage. Nor, for that matter, did Magellan. However, the sailors who did complete the trip and returned to Spain, brought back with them the fantastic tale of a land inhabited by giants.

It was a tall tale that kept growing taller. Later voyages described encounters with Patagonians who stood 10 feet tall. Others came in contact with ones whose height was measured at 12 feet. Yet others encountered Patagonians who truly towered above normal people, measuring 15 feet in height. Reports of the South American giants would grip European imaginations for over 250 years.

The first challenge to the tall tales came from the famed British seaman and pirate, Sir Francis Drake, who encountered Patagonians during his own circumnavigation of the globe. As described by his nephew: “Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices: but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.

Yet the stories of South American giants persisted, and as late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British Royal Navy ship had encountered a tribe of 9 foot tall natives. However, when the ship’s account of the voyage was finally published, the natives were recorded as being 6 feet 6 inches tall – quite tall, but not incredibly so, and certainly not giants. In reality, the tribe in question, the Tehuelche, were statuesque and bigger than average. But they stood in the 6 foot range.

10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World
Shinichi Fujimura caught red handed on camera, burying archaeological artifacts. Neotrouve

Shinichi Fujimura’s Discoveries

In 1981, Shinchi Fujimora, a self-taught Japanese archaeologist, discovered stone age artifacts dating back 40,000 years, thus establishing human presence in Japan for at least that long. It was a spectacular find which launched Fujimora’s career, gained him national and international fame, and quickly put him in the forefront of Japanese archaeology.

Archaeology is a particularly popular subject in Japan. The Japanese people revel in their country’s uniqueness, and exhibit greater fascination with their pre history than any other people do about theirs. In that country, new archaeological finds are frequently announced in bold headlines on the front pages of leading newspapers, and bookshops usually have entire sections devoted to Stone Age Japan. In that environment, Fujimora became a national celebrity, and his findings were incorporated into school textbooks and taught to Japanese children for years.

Following his first discovery, Fujimora worked on over a hundred archaeological projects around Japan. Amazingly, the spectacular luck with which he began his career continued without cease or letup, and Fujimora kept finding older and older artifacts, that kept pushing Japan’s human pre-history further and further back. His fame and prestige, already high, reached stratospheric levels in 1993, when he discovered stone age evidence of humans near the village of Tsukidate, which dated back over half a million years. At a stroke, Japan became the equal of its rival, China, in the antiquity scale.

So remarkable was that streak, and so fortunate did Fujimura seem in his ability to unearth objects that few if any other archaeologists could find, that awestruck admirers began referring to the seemingly divinely guided Fujimora as “God’s Hands”. His archaeological skills just seemed too good to be true. And as the adage goes, things too good to be true usually are.

Such was the case with Fujimora. In 2000, Japan was rocked when a daily newspaper published three photographs showing the respected and celebrated archaeologist planting supposedly ancient stone age tools at a dig site. Forced to confess after being caught on film, red handed, Fujimora admitted to planting evidence not only at that site, but in other locations across Japan, and throughout his entire career. When asked why he did that, a sobbing Fujimora tearfully responded “the devil made me do it“.

10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World
The Keely Engine and its inventor, John Ernst Worrell Keely. Wikimedia

Keely Engine

John Ernst Worrell Keely (1837 – 1898) worked a variety of jobs as a young man, and was a painter, carpenter, member of a theatrical orchestra, a carnival barker, and a mechanic. In 1872, he declared that he had invented a new engine that would revolutionize the world, by drawing its energy from a new physical force that held limitless potential power.

In the 19th century, there was a widespread and mistaken belief that all space was filled with something called a “luminiferous ether”. It was a hypothetical substance thought necessary for the movement of light or electric waves, and without which those things would be impossible. Keely claimed to have figured out how to tap into and extract energy from this (nonexistent) ether.

Having unraveled the secrets of the luminiferous ether, Keely claimed that he could now tap the power of atoms in water to furnish energy. As he explained it to listeners, atoms were in a state of constant vibration, and by harnessing and channeling water’s vibrations in his revolutionary Keely engine, people could tap into 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. Put another way, 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.

Keely demonstrated a prototype to guests in his workshop by pouring water into its engine, then playing a harmonica, violin, flute, or other musical instrument to activate the machine with sound vibrations. Soon, the device would start gurgling, rumbling, then come alive, providing pressures of up to 50,000 psi on display gauges. Harnessing that power, Keely arranged demonstrations in which thick ropes were ripped apart, iron bars were bent, twisted, and snapped in two, and bullets were driven through twelve inch wooden planks.

Keely made up science-y sounding terminology to describe the principles of his invention. He began by describing his engine as a “vibratory generator”. Then he started telling observers that they were witnessing “quadruple negative harmonics”. At other times, he told gullible investors that he was going to make them filthy rich with his “hydro pneumatic pulsating vacu-engine”. And whenever a listener sounded a note of skepticism, he drowned it with yet more science-y sounding phrases such as “vibratory negatives”, “atomic triplets”, “etheric disintegration”, and “atomic ether vibrations”.

Such words sounded impressive to non scientists, but in actuality were pseudo scientific gibberish. It was effective pseudo scientific gibberish, however: within a short time, he convinced investors to give him the equivalent of $20 million in 2017 dollars as startup capital, which he used to found the Keely Motor Company. In subsequent years, investors forked over the equivalent of 100 million dollars in today’s money for a stake in Keely’s enterprise.

Over two decades, Keely closely guarded the secret of his invention, refusing to share its details with anybody. But he kept promising investors that the perfection of a commercial version of his machine was right around the corner. And during that time, gullible investors kept giving him more and more money, notwithstanding the consensus of physicists that Keely was a quack and charlatan, and that perpetual motion such as he promised was physically impossible. Finally, when Keely died in 1898, the secret of his engine was revealed to the world. It had not been powered by water, but by a compressed air machine hidden two floors below, and connected to the Keely engine by cleverly concealed pipes and hoses.

10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World
Crop Circles. Live Science

Crop Circles

In 1976, crops in a wheat field in Wiltshire, England, were mysteriously flattened in a circular pattern. Soon, mysterious circles of flattened crops, in increasingly elaborate patterns, began appearing in other fields throughout Britain. Once the phenomenon became widely known, it attracted self-declared experts, who offered mystical, magical, and pseudo scientific explanations for the mystery.

Theories ranged from secret weapons testing, to restless spirits and ghosts acting out, to Gaia, the primal Mother Earth, expressing her distress at what humanity had done to her planet. Early on, one of the explanations that gained the greatest currency was that the circles were created by space aliens, as a means of communicating with mankind in some as yet un-deciphered code.

That line of reasoning of aliens being behind the circles was buttressed by the fact that only a decade earlier, mysterious circles had appeared in Australian crops. Many had attributed the Australian circles to UFO landings, labeling them “[flying] saucer nests”. Wiltshire, where the first British crop circle appeared, is located near Stonehenge, and the region is rife with burial mounds and ancient marker stones. New Age types had long claimed those landmarks were linked to others throughout Britain via “leys” – mysterious energy paths.

For years, the region had also been a hotbed for UFO watch parties – England’s Roswell, if you would. So it seemed apt that the first crop circles, or saucer nests, would appear in its vicinity. It was not long before theories combining Stonehenge, ancient Druids, mystic energy paths, and the recently revealed crop circles, were combined in a complex explanation for the phenomenon. The circles themselves became magnets for New Age mystical tourism.

In reality, the crop circles had been the brainchild of Doug Bower, an English prankster. One night in 1976, he had been drinking with his friend Dave Chorley, and the two got to talking about UFOs, aliens, flying saucers and the mysterious Australian circles. Midway through the conversation, Bower suddenly said: “Let’s go over there and make it look like a flying saucer has landed“. As they confessed in 1991, when they finally revealed the mystery to journalists, it had been incredibly easy. As they demonstrated to print and TV journalists by creating other crop circles in just minutes, all it took was rope, a wooden plank, and a wire to help them walk in a straight line.

A “cereologist” – a crop circle “expert” who had made a living for years by writing and lecturing about the phenomenon, was called in. He declared the circles authentic. Then the hammer was dropped on him, when it was revealed to that it had been a simple hoax and prank all along. As Bower and Chorley explained, they had created all crop circles up to 1987, when other pranksters discovered how to make their own circles and patterns, and joined in on the fun.

10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World
Vaccine autism hoax’s aftermath. Medium

Vaccine Autism Hoax

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor, published a study in The Lancet – a prestigious medical journal. In it, he alleged a link between the combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and autism. Dr. Wakefield’s claims were widely reported, and led to a sharp drop in the rates for vaccination in the United Kingdom and Ireland. That resulted in numerous children dying or suffering serious permanent injuries.

Only problem? The study published in The Lancet was fraudulent. Not “controversial”, or “poorly researched” or “mistaken”, but straightforward deliberately fraudulent. As in the serious and deliberate type of criminal fraud for which fraudsters lose the license to practice their profession. Following Dr. Wakefield’s study, other large scale studies were conducted, but found no evidence to support his claims. Researchers then examined Dr. Wakefield’s methodology – how did he arrive at his conclusions, linking MMR and autism?

It turned out that the doctor had simply fabricated the evidence. He did not make “mistakes” in his research – he simply made up much of the research, inventing it out of thin air. And as icing on the cake, transforming the doctor from an incompetent researcher or crank into a cartoonish villain, it emerged he had been paid 55,000 British Pounds to claim that MMR vaccines caused autism. Several of the parents used in his “study” were litigants suing pharmaceutical companies. Naturally, he had failed to disclose that conflict.

With egg on The Lancet’s face, its editor in chief wrote: “It seems obvious now that had we appreciated the full context in which the work reported in the 1998 Lancet paper by Wakefield and colleagues was done, publication would not have taken place“. After the vaccine hoax study was revealed as a fraud, the study was retracted by The Lancet. As to Dr. Wakefield, he was found guilty by British medical authorities of serious professional misconduct and fraud, and had his medical license revoked.

Unfortunately, by then the former doctor’s hoax had found resonance within certain population segments, who went on to become fervent anti vaccination activists. Notwithstanding that the study upon which their activism is based has been debunked as a fraud, those activists convinced many of the poorly informed, poorly educated, or gullible, that vaccines are bad for children.

Thus, one of the greatest medical advances in human history, which helped end widespread epidemics that killed a majority of children before they reached adulthood, is threatened. Childhood diseases that had been all but eliminated are making a comeback, and a steadily growing number of unvaccinated children are dying or suffering grave illnesses that leave them crippled for life. As such, this fraud has been described as the most damaging hoax of the past century – a fraud that has already killed or maimed many children, and has the potential to kill or maim millions more.

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