Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History

Khalid Elhassan - February 2, 2020

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
A sympathetic vibratory engine. Pinterest

15. The “Luminiferous Ether” and the Revolutionary Engine

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

At the time, 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) substance. Having unraveled the secrets of the luminiferous ether, Keely claimed that he could now tap the power of atoms in water to furnish energy.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
John Keely with his engine, circa 1895. Wikimedia

14. A Perpetual Motion Machine by Another Name

As John Keely put it, 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, one 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, for violating the first or second laws of thermodynamics.

Nonetheless, Keely demonstrated a prototype in his workshop by pouring water into its engine, then playing harmonica, violin, flute, or other musical instruments to activate the contraption with sound vibrations. Soon, the machine 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.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
John Keely and a version of his engine. Imgur

13. Science-y Sounding Gibberish

Keely spouted science-y sounding words and phrases 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 were actually nothing more than pseudo-scientific gibberish. It was effective pseudo-scientific gibberish, however: within a short time, he convinced investors to give him the equivalent of about $20 million in 2020 dollars as startup capital, which he used to found the Keely Motor Company. In subsequent years, investors forked over the equivalent of another 100 million dollars for a stake in Keely’s enterprise.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
The Keely Engine had been powered by a compressed air sphere beneath his workshop. Wikimedia

12. The Keely Engine Took Investors on a Decades-Long Ride

Keely closely guarded the secrets of his invention for more than two decades, 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. In the meantime, 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 beneath his workshop. The air compressor was connected to the Keely Engine by cleverly concealed pipes and hoses.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Crop circles. Evansville Courier & Press

11. The Silly Prank That Started an International Craze

In 1976, people in Wiltshire, England, were baffled by a wheat field whose crops were mysteriously flattened in a circle. 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 explanation that gained great currency was that the circles were created by space aliens, communicating with mankind in code. Needless to say, all the pseudo-scientific and mystical explanations were hogwash.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Crop circles grew more elaborate over the years, as other pranksters joined in on the fun. Revista UFO

10. England’s Roswell and Flying Saucer Nests

The argument that aliens were behind the circles was buttressed by the fact that 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 nearby. Before long, 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.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Doug Bower and Dave Chorley. Ninja Journal

9. “Let’s Go Over There and Make It Look Like a Flying Saucer Has Landed”

The crop circles were the brainchild of Doug Bower, an English prankster. One night in 1976, while drinking with his friend Dave Chorley, the duo 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, it had been incredibly easy. Demonstrating their technique to print and TV journalists by creating other crop circles in mere 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 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.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
An illustration of a Martian fighting machine hovering over Londoners in Regent Street and Piccadilly, from a 1906 edition of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Imgur

8. The Accidental Hoax That Caused a Panic

Other pranks and hoaxes on this list were deliberate, but here is one that came about quite by accident. In the 1930s, the Columbia Broadcasting System’s radio network hosted The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was a live radio drama series created by director and producer Orson Welles, that presented classic literary works.

On the evening of Sunday, October 30th, 1938, Welles directed and narrated an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds as a Halloween special. It ended up causing widespread panic when many listeners mistook the radio play about a fictional alien invasion for a news broadcast describing an actual alien invasion.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Orson Welles narrating on the radio. Battlefield Earth

7. There’s Always Somebody Who Didn’t Get the Memo

The original War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells described a Martian invasion of Victorian Britain, in which the aliens swiftly crushed mankind with advanced technology such as unstoppable death rays and lethal poison gasses. Orson Welles’ adaptation converted the novel into a series of news bulletins, describing an alien invasion of 1938 New Jersey.

Welles’ broadcast made it clear at the beginning that it was a radio play. However, not everybody got the message: many listeners had tuned in mid-broadcast, and thus missed the notification that what they were hearing was a play, not actual news. For such listeners, what they heard was alarming, as Welles, playing the part of a news announcer, fired off a series of news bulletins describing the arrival of Martians.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Headlines from the day after the War of the Worlds broadcast. Click Americana

6. From Alarm to Headless Chicken Panic

The alarm triggered by Orson Welles’ broadcast soon turned into panic for many, when the Martians demonstrated their hostile intent by falling upon the good people of New Jersey with an unparalleled ferocity. Things got worse when an actor who sounded like President Franklin Roosevelt told America: ” Citizens of the nation: I shall not try to conceal the gravity of the situation that confronts the country, nor the concern of your government in protecting the lives and property of its people. . . .

we must continue the performance of our duties each and every one of us, so that we may confront this destructive adversary with a nation united, courageous, and consecrated to the preservation of human supremacy on this earth.” That was followed by reports that the US Army was heavily engaged in a desperate fight to resist the invaders, then by news bulletins announcing that New York City was being evacuated.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Orson Welles defending himself to journalists after the War of the Worlds panic. Corbis

5. The Most Hated Man in America

The War of the Worlds broadcast was frequently interrupted to clarify that it was just a play. However, many listeners had not lingered by their radios long enough to hear such clarifications. Soon as they heard that Earth was under attack by extra terrestrials, many panicked and ran out of their homes screaming, or packed their cars and fled into the night. Telephone operators were swamped as thousands of frightened listeners called radio stations, police, and newspapers. Some people rushed to churches to pray, others donned improvised gas masks, and others simply ran around like chickens with their heads cut off.

The following day, Orson Welles woke up to discover that he was the most talked about – and hated – man in America. Once it became clear that Earth was not under attack, public panic was replaced by public outrage at Welles, who was accused of having deliberately caused the widespread hysteria.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
A Japanese statue from the Jomon Period. Wikimedia

4. Hoaxing a Nation

Hard to imagine, but some countries – or at least one country – have a national passion for archaeology: Japan. There, archaeology is particularly popular with the general public. The Japanese people revel in their country’s uniqueness and exhibit greater fascination with their prehistory than any other people do about theirs.

New archaeological finds are frequently announced in bold headlines on the front pages of leading Japanese newspapers, and bookshops have entire sections devoted to Stone Age Japan. In that environment, self-taught archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura became a national celebrity, and his findings were incorporated into school textbooks and taught to Japanese children for years. Unfortunately, his archaeological discoveries were nothing but a string of hoaxes.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Shinichi Fujimura at a dig site. Tussel

3. Hoaxing 101: Tell People What They Want to Believe

In 1981, Shinichi Fujimura discovered stone age artifacts dating back 40,000 years. That established that humans were present in Japan for at least that long. It was a spectacular find which launched Fujimura’s career, gained him national and international fame, and quickly put him in the forefront of Japanese archaeology.

Fujimura’s discovery was particularly significant for the Japanese. Japan has a longstanding love-hate relationship with China, and is constantly uneasy with the fact that its civilization and culture are derived from China’s. Evidence of human presence in Japan for tens of thousands of years offered an out, and supported a counter-thesis that Japanese culture and civilization might have actually developed independently of China’s. A discovery that supports what people want to believe is a discovery that will be eagerly embraced by the public.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Artifacts discovered by Fujimura. ABC Science

2. “God’s Hands”

After his first spectacular discovery, Shinichi Fujimura worked on over a hundred archaeological projects around Japan. Amazingly, the stellar good fortune with which he began his career continued without cease or letup. Fujimura 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.

By any measure, Fujimura’s streak was remarkable. So fortunate did he seem in his ability to unearth objects that no other archaeologists could find, that awestruck admirers began referring to the seemingly divinely guided Fujimura as “God’s Hands”. His skills just seemed too good to be true – and as the saying goes, things too good to be true usually are.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Shinichi Fujimura was caught on camera while burying artifacts. Neo Trouve

1. “The Devil Made Me Do It”

Fujimura’s spectacular streak of discoveries – and his reputation – came to a screeching halt and crashed in 2000. That year, 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.

Fujimura was forced to confess after he was caught on film, red-handed. He 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 Fujimura tearfully responded “the devil made me do it“.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Donation of Constantine

Archaeology Magazine, Volume 54, Number 1, January / February 2001 – “God’s Hands” Did the Devil’s Work

Ball, Warwick – Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire (2000)

Cracked – 4 Impressively Weird Pranks From Centuries Ago

Cracked – The 6 Most Amazing Pranks (You Won’t Believe Worked)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Donation of Constantine

History Collection – 10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World

Guardian, The, December 11th, 2003 – Keely’s Trickster Engine

King, Ross – Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (2013)

Listverse – 10 of History’s Most Prolific Con Artists and Their Famous Cons

Live Science, June 25th, 2008 – A Savage Hoax: The Cave Men Who Never Existed

Lock Haven University – The Keely Motor Hoax

Marketplace, October 31st, 2018 – What Orson Welles and ‘War of the Worlds’ Taught Us About Economic Panic

Museum of Hoaxes – Keely Motor Company

Natural History Museum – Piltdown Man

New Yorker, The, October 21st, 2017 – Moon Shot: Race, a Hoax, and the Birth of Fake News

Palestine Herald Press, June 2nd, 2009 – Waco Attorney Still Going Strong at 91

Smithsonian Magazine, December 15th, 2009 – Crop Circles: The Art of the Hoax

Smithsonian Magazine, July 2nd, 2015 – The Great Moon Hoax Was Simply a Sign of Its Time

Smithsonian Magazine, October 16th, 2017 – The Cardiff Giant Was Just a Big Hoax

Wikipedia – Japanese Paleolithic Hoax

Wikipedia – Piltdown Man