13. BBC broadcasts aromas via television, April 1, 1965
On April Fools’ Day 1965 the BBC announced a new dimension to their television broadcasts. An interview with a scientist from the University of London revealed that he had perfected a machine which allowed for the broadcast of odors from the studio to receiving sets, with no modification of the sets required. The entire process was completed in the studio, where his machine absorbed the molecules of the aromas and transmitted them over the airwaves. The scientist agreed to a demonstration of his machine, using the pungent aroma of raw onions and the fragrance of freshly brewed coffee, both of which were inserted into his machine. Viewers were asked to call in when they detected the scents.
It didn’t take long before the telephones were ringing in the studio. Scores of viewers from across the United Kingdom called in to report that the machine – which was called smell-o-vision – was a success. Some viewers reported the smell of onions was so strong that it caused their eyes to water. That smell-o-vision was a carefully conceived April Fools’ Day hoax was revealed after the BBC received a multitude of calls from viewers apparently readily susceptible to suggestion. The concept has been revisited in film and television since, though through the use of peripheral equipment rather than the aroma being broadcast through the television receiver.
Among the most famous paintings in the world, and noted for its large size, The Night Watch by Rembrandt von Rijn is beloved by the Dutch as a national symbol, as well as a source of national pride. It is widely considered to be the greatest masterpiece of the period known as the Dutch Golden Age. On April 1, 1950, Dutch citizens were stunned to learn, via radio, that the painting was dissolving of apparently its own accord, with little opportunity of its being saved. According to a broadcast of the Dutch national radio network, the painting was inadvertently cleaned with a harmful cleaning fluid, and was melting throughout the day. Already unrecognizable, by midnight it would be gone.
The radio broadcast caused hundreds of art lovers and students to race to the Rijksmuseum, where the painting was housed, in order to view it one last time. The length of time waiting in the queue was hours, and VARA – the Dutch national radio network – had reporters working the line, interviewing those waiting to see the painting live on the air. Many were in tears. They exited the building through an opposite door so as not to reveal to those still waiting the painting was fine and the story was a hoax. The Night Watch has been the subject of vandalism several times, and in 2019 was schedule for a full restoration, to take place while the painting remained on public display.
The German car manufacturer BMW has a long tradition of presenting advertisements on the first of April which are deliberate hoaxes, leading their fans to expect them and limiting their efficiency as a joke, since it is well-known and expected of them. That was not the case on April Fools’ Day, 1983, when magazine and newspaper advertisements revealed their latest innovation in luxury. The company announced a new sunroof, which drivers could leave open in the hardest rain while the interior of the vehicle remained dry. According to the ads, the car could be driven through an automatic carwash with the top open, the occupants protected by the new design.
BMW claimed that the new sunroof was designed by one of their engineers, identified by the company as Herr Blohn. The system used high volume air blowers to direct a jet of air across the opening, which diverted water from entering the vehicle. Those potential customers who wanted additional information were directed to telephone customer service and direct their call to April Wurst (pronounced versed). Since the 1983 April Fools’ Day advertisement BMW has produced many more such jokes, inspiring similar tongue in cheek advertisements and announcements by competitors.
Those who subscribe to UFO conspiracies will be dismayed to learn that one of the photos of an extraterrestrial which purports to support evidence of alien contact began as an April Fools’ Day joke in a German newspaper. It began with a photograph of an alien which appeared in a Wiesbaden newspaper accompanying an article which described the crash of a UFO discovered by American soldiers. The alien, alive, had been taken into the soldiers’ custody. Several days later the newspaper published an announcement describing the article and photograph as an April Fools’ Day joke. By that time a copy of the photograph was in the FBI’s voluminous files.
In 1980 the photograph was obtained by the authors of the book The Roswell Incident, Charles Berlitz and William Moore. They presented the photograph as proof of an alien encounter, which had been hushed up by the United States military. The German photographer who created the picture, as an April Fools’ Day hoax, later revealed that the “alien” was actually his then five year old son, costumed and posing with amenable American soldiers. The revelation has not stopped those who believe it to be a photograph of a genuine extraterrestrial from continuing to present it as proof that earth has been visited by aliens and governments continue to create cover ups to deny the fact to citizens.
The Germans, through their newspapers, have a long and distinguished history of producing April Fools’ Day hoaxes, some more believable than others. In April, 1921, a Berlin newspaper produced a story which explained how a particularly innovative farmer derived lard from his pigs without killing them. The lard was removed surgically from the living animal, which was then stitched up to presumably produce yet more lard. The animal was numbed during the procedure, which could be performed up to three times per year, making the animal a living lard factory. First British, and later American newspapers reprinted the story and enhanced it.
For over a year the story remained in play. The farmer who discovered the process had been described as living in the town of Schleichegrieben. Once it became apparent that no town of that name existed in Germany British newspapers began to question the story. The name of the fictional town translated to sneaking bacon, another indication of the falsity of the story. The Berlin newspaper which originally published the story admitted it was an April Fools’ Day joke over a year after it first appeared, having fooled hardened news publishers in Europe and America, as well as their readers, for most of that time.
It would be hard to imagine a purpose for write-only memory, which allows information to be stored but never retrieved. But on April 1, 1973, Signetics, a California based manufacturer of integrated circuit chips founded in 1961, announced that they had successfully developed write-only memory in a press release. A spokesperson for the company, Roy L. Twitty, called the innovation a major achievement which would have a beneficial effect on the lives of all who ever used computers. Signetics included technical data sheets describing the memory as part of the press release, comprised of meaningless diagrams and equations.
The concept became an inside joke within the industry, and was expanded upon by other manufacturers and engineers, including Apple, which included references to it in their reference manual for the Apple IIe computer in 1982. Apple claimed that the concept of write-only memory was developed under a government contract in 1975, and that it had been criticized as a “six-million dollar boondoggle” but that the device allowed for the storage of “excess information”, and thus saved millions of dollars by freeing up conventional memory storage systems for other uses. The concept remains an allusion to a totally worthless device or idea.
Popular Electronics published their April issue for 1955 including an article which described the concept of “Contra-Polar Energy”. Contra-polar energy was described as negative energy, which when applied to any electronic or electrical device would cause it to produce the exact opposite of what it was designed to produce. In other words, if applied to a light bulb, the bulb would cast darkness rather than light. An electric element on a stove would become ice cold rather than generate heat. The energy could act as a brake on an electric motor. According to the magazine the energy was developed secretly by the military during the Second World War.
The magazine included a photograph which depicted a table lamp creating darkness on the surface on which it rested. The article also contained a disclaimer, which directed the readers’ attention to the fact of its being published on the first day of April. Nonetheless, interested readers continued to write to the magazine for additional information for years. In 1959 Popular Electronics was forced to issue a statement which indicated the article had been an April Fools’ Day joke, and continued demand for more information led to their doing so again in 1963, eight years after its original publication.
20 London’s Big Ben converted to digital, April 1, 1980
Once again, in 1980 the BBC perpetrated a hoax in celebration of April Fools’ Day which bemused some and outraged others. Clocks and watches with digital faces rather than traditional dials were all the rage in the late 1970s and early 1980s. On April 1, the BBC reported that in accordance with the times the famed London hallmark, Big Ben, would be equipped with a digital face replacing its dial. The report included much of the history of what is arguably the world’s most famous clock, and closed with the announcement that the hands would be given away to listeners on a first come, first served basis. Calls from around the world began immediately, hoping to obtain a relic of the clock.
Not all of the calls were about gaining one of the clock’s hands. The British public was outraged at the idea. The volume of calls and the anger expressed in them forced the network to issue a statement that the entire report had been an April Fools’ Day joke. That announcement merely increased the numbers of calls into the BBC, from viewers and listeners who did not find the joke the least bit funny. The BBC issued several apologies for the gaffe. The joke has been repeated over the years by British tabloids and magazines, with reasons for the conversion given as an effort to boost tourism and the need to upgrade the clock, but never with the overwhelmingly negative reaction expressed in 1980, which gives an indication of the credibility the BBC held with the public at the time.
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