John Ernst Worrell Keely (1837 – 1898) had plenty of moxie and hustle. As a young man, he worked as a painter, carpenter, member of a theatrical orchestra, a carnival barker, and a mechanic. He left his mark in history, however, when he turned to crime and fraud. 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 that held limitless potential power. Back then, there was a 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.
Keely claimed to have figured out how to tap into and extract energy from this (nonexistent) ether. Keely claimed that he had unraveled the secrets of the luminiferous ether, and could now harness the power of atoms in water to furnish energy. As he explained it, atoms were in a state of constant vibration. By harnessing and channeling water’s vibrations in his revolutionary Keely engine, people could tap into limitless energy. Keely told the world that he had gotten water atoms to vibrate in unison in accordance with the principles of the luminiferous ether, and thus discovered how to use its “etheric force” to power motors. As seen below, that was pure dumb gibberish.
The Keely Engine was a perpetual motion machine – a physics impossibility because it violates the first or second laws of thermodynamics. John Keely demonstrated a prototype to guests in his workshop. He poured water into its engine, then played a harmonica, violin, flute, or other musical instrument to activate the machine with sound vibrations. Soon, the device gurgled, rumbled, came alive, and provided 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. Early on, he described his engine as a “vibratory generator”. Then he began to tell observers that they were seeing “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”. If a listener sounded a note of skepticism, Keely drowned it with yet more science-y sounding phrases such as “vibratory negatives”, “atomic triplets”, “etheric disintegration”, and “atomic ether vibrations”.
John Keely tossed around fancy words that sounded impressive to non-scientists, but were actually pseudoscientific gibberish. Although dumb, it was nonetheless effective pseudoscientific gibberish. Within a short time, Keely convinced investors to give him the equivalent of $30 million in 2022 dollars as startup capital, which he used to found the Keely Motor Company. In subsequent years, investors forked over the equivalent of 130 million dollars in today’s money for a stake in Keely’s enterprise. Over two decades, he closely guarded the secret of his invention, refusing to share its details with anybody.
Keely constantly promised that the perfection of a commercial version of his machine was right around the corner. For years, gullible investors continued to give him more and more money. That happened despite the consensus of physicists that Keely was a quack and charlatan, and that perpetual motion such as he promised was impossible. Finally, when Keely died in 1898, the secret of his engine was revealed: the whole thing boiled down to his willingness to engage in the crime of fraud. The device had not been powered by water, but by a compressed air machine hidden two floors below, and connected to Keely’s engine by cleverly concealed pipes and hoses.
It is said that if you build a better mouse trap, the world will beat a path to your door. But what if you are indifferent to mice and mousetraps, and instead have smooth rocks on your mind? Well, if you’re a creative hustler like ad executive Gary Dahl, you create a smooth rock fad out of scratch. Then you sell millions of rocks that you picked up from a Mexican beach for next to nothing, and become a millionaire. It all began as Dahl knocked back a few drinks at a bar, as he listened to some of his friends moan and complain about the time and effort it took to care for their pets.
So he joked about an idea for a perfect pet: a rock. Rocks don’t need to be fed, walked, groomed, or bathed. They don’t act up or make a mess. They don’t get sick and need expensive trips to the vet, and they don’t die. It was a half drunk joke at a bar, and for most people, that’s where it would have ended, forgotten by the time they settled their tab and staggered back home. But Gary Dahl was not most people, and the gears continued to turn in his head about pet rocks. Why not? The more he mulled it, the more feasible it seemed. Especially in the context of the moment, 1975 America, and where he lived, the San Francisco Bay Area, where stuff that seems wacky to rest of the world is often viewed as mainstream.
As it Turns Out, Selling Pet Rocks Was Not that Dumb of an Idea
The pet rock idea seemed dumb, but Gary Dahl believed that it was doable. So he proceeded to collect smooth rocks from Rosarito Beach in Mexico, which cost him about a penny each. Then he wrote a humorous and gag filled 32-page owner’s manual, titled “The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock“, with instructions on how to raise and care for one’s Pet Rock. That was accompanied by birth certificates and documentation that attested to the rock’s lineage and purity of breed. Dahl then stuffed everything in a straw lined box that represented his biggest expense, and sold his Pet Rocks for $3.95 each. They sold like hotcakes. As he put it later: “I was the only one sold on my idea. My wife thought I was crazy. A lot of my friends thought I was crazy. And… it worked. But I was the only one who thought it would“.
It is hard to imagine that such an idea would have worked in any decade other than the 1970s. The craze lasted only a few months, but it made Dahl rich. He sold about one and a half million Pet Rocks in two and a half months. Before they went out of style, five million Pet Rocks had been sold, and Dahl had become a millionaire. He ploughed his proceeds into a bar, and tried his hand at other gag products, such as “Red China Dirt” – an attempt to smuggle mainland China into the US, one cubic inch at a time. With Pet Rocks, Dahl had captured lightning in a bottle – a feat few people ever get to pull even once. He would not pull it off twice, and none of his other novelty items met with anything like the success of the Pet Rocks.
The Downside of Blind and Dumb Reverence for Authority
Germans have long been mocked – not least by fellow Germans – for a perceived national trait and cultural tendency to blindly obey the orders of authority figures. For generations, an often repeated cliché had it that otherwise intelligent and rational Germans could simply turn off the independent part of their brains in the presence of authority figures. As a consequence, they are said to turn into automatons who obey otherwise questionable commands simply because they are orders issued by higher ups.
The results can sometimes be horrific. Clearest example of that is the defense raised by many Germans prosecuted for war crimes after World War II. They sought to evade responsibility with variations of “I was only obeying orders“. Many or perhaps most genuinely believed that obedience to the commands of superiors absolved them of legal and moral responsibility. Other times, as seen below, the consequences are merely absurd. Like that time when a drifter walked into a mayor’s office, and in a hilarious bit of deceit, managed to order everybody around and loot the place simply because he was dressed in an officer’s uniform.
In 1849, Wilhelm Voigt was born in Prussia. He spent most of his life as a vagabond, drifter, and petty thief. His first recorded brush with the penal system occurred in 1863. Fourteen-year-old Voigt was arrested and prosecuted for theft, convicted, sentenced to two weeks behind bars, and kicked out of school. It was the start of a long career on the wrong side of the law. Not a particularly successful career, though. Voigt was no master criminal, and repeatedly got caught. In the 27 years from 1864 to 1891, for example, he racked up sentences of 25 years for various offenses such as burglary, forgery, and theft. Then he received his longest sentence yet, 15 years, for armed robbery.
He was released in February, 1906, and supported himself for a time in Berlin as a shoemaker. Then he was expelled from the German capital as an undesirable. So he reverted to his old ways. While in prison, he had mused to a fellow inmate: “with some soldiers, you could really do some business“. Now, he decided to turn such musings into action, and rob a suburban town hall by deceit that involved the use of unwitting soldiers. He scouted several municipalities, and finally settled on the small town of Kopenick, near Berlin. His plan was to simply waltz in, and order officials to hand him their town’s treasury. It sounds dumb, but as seen below, it worked.
Wilhelm Voigt bought the components of an army captain’s uniform from second hand stores, and researched the movement of small squads of soldiers in the Berlin region. Then on the afternoon of October 16th, 1906, he sprang into action. Dressed as a captain, he stopped two squads of soldiers, ten men in all, near a railway station, and ordered them to follow him. He took them to Kopenick’s town hall. There, he barked commands, claimed to act on orders of “the highest authority“, and used the soldiers to commandeer the place. Voigt arrested the mayor and other officials, and ordered the town treasurer to hand over all the cash in the town’s coffers – about 4000 marks. He then sent the “arrested” officials to a Berlin police station for interrogation in a car guarded by some of his soldiers.
He ordered the other soldiers to guard the place, then left with the cash, changed into civilian clothes, and disappeared. Voigt did not enjoy his loot for long. Betrayed by the jailbird to whom he had mused about using soldiers, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years. The public was amused by the brazen deceit, and Kaiser Wilhelm II eventually pardoned Voigt in 1908. Upon his release, Voigt capitalized on his popularity and appeared in a play about his caper, wrote a book, signed photos, and made appearances in amusement parks, variety shows, and restaurants. He eventually moved to Luxembourg, where he worked as a shoemaker and waiter, and was supported by a pension from a wealthy heiress. Voigt bought a house and retired, but was financially ruined by the post-WWI economic downturn. He died and was buried in Luxembourg in 1922.
Comic book ads have long promised kids unbelievable products for unbelievably low prices. “X-ray” glasses that would let you see through people’s clothes. A submarine big enough for you and your best friend to pilot underwater. A manual that promised to transform you in just a few weeks from a skinny dweeb who gets sand kicked in his face at the beach by bullies, and into a muscle-bound Charles Atlas lookalike who kicks ass and takes names. The only guarantee when the product finally arrives is the guaranteed look of disappointment on the recipient kid’s face when he finally sees what he’d shelled a good chunk of his allowance on.
Of all the disappointing products, however, few were more disappointing than “Sea Monkeys”. A hallmark of comics for decades, these ads depicted a family of anthropomorphic sea critters. They stood on two feet, with skinny arms and slender fingers, a crown on their heads, and a kind of sexy mommy with her legs crossed suggestively, looking at the mostly prepubescent readers with a seductive smile. All that can be yours for a dollar. As seen below, reality fell short of expectations.
Sea Monkey ads screamed: “Enter the WONDERFUL WORLD OF AMAZING LIVE SEA MONKEYS!” For a measly buck, the reader is promised instant pets that are “SO EAGER TO PLEASE, THEY CAN EVEN BE TRAINED“. All you have to do is add water, and they will hatch as soon as they are wet. It was an irresistible lure for many kids, who eagerly cut out the coupon, placed it in an envelope along with a dollar, scrounged a stamp, and mailed it to a New York City address. After weeks, or sometimes months, of waiting on tenterhooks, the postman finally delivered an envelope that contained a packet and instructions.
As kids soon learned, their pets did not hatch in a second as advertised. Instead, they first had to add a nutrient packet to a bowl of water that transformed it into an icky sludge, wait 24 hours, then add a packet of eggs. Eventually, as the sludge settled on the bottom of the bowl, some tiny whirring motions could be seen. With the help of a magnifying glass, kids finally got to see their Sea Monkeys. Except that they looked nothing like the ad, but more like some strange kind of lice. Contra the fanciful claim in the comic book, what arrived weren’t sea monkeys – there is no such species – but brine shrimp eggs. “Sea Monkeys” was just a marketing term to sucker kids into paying for brine shrimp.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading