P.T. Barnum is famously credited with saying, “There is a sucker born every minute.” This week’s viral videos of a Dutch man taking flight powered only by a set of flapping wings certainly demonstrates that we all want to believe in the power of technology. There were plenty of skeptics ragging on the videos for flaws in production and physics, but an equal number of faithful rose to the defense of fictional Jarno Smeets, until he himself — in the person of filmmaker Floris Kaayk – revealed the entire effort was an elaborate hoax.
Technology has been intertwined with hoaxes for centuries, both in schemes designed to fake the existence of amazing or implausible science and technology, and as a tool to pull off hoaxes of all types. Read on to find out about some of the most amazing — or at least my favorites.
The Mechanical Turk
Mechanical Turk is best known today as the Amazon-owned website where you can get tasks completed by people around the world, often for only pennies. Its namesake though is one of the longest-running and widespread tech hoaxes of the pre-internet era. In 1770, an amazing chess-playing machine began touring the world, defeating such luminaries as Ben Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. The brainchild of Wolfgang von Kempelen, the apparent robot was actually a carefully designed bit of stagecraft that allowed a human chess master to hide inside and direct the machine’s robotic arm. It was not found out until over 50 years after its creation, and continued touring even after that, until 1854.
Over the course of its career at least a half dozen different chessmasters were hired to operate the controls and defeat their unsuspecting opponents.
Unlike most of the hoaxes in this article, cold fusion is still a potential mystery. While mostly discredited, there are still scientists who believe there is a kernel of truth in the original findings of unexplained nuclear energy at low temperatures, so some work is still being done on it. The mystery started in March 1989 with some odd results in experiments by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann indicating more heat than expected had been generated, and in their view could only be explained by some type of nuclear reaction.
In a sort of mass delusion, there were initially many reports from others, including Georgia Tech and BYU, reproducing all or part of their results. Most of these were later withdrawn after being overwhelmed by the much larger number of cases where the results were not reproducible. Caltech, for example, using much better equipment than was available for the original experiment, could find no evidence of additional energy release. By May, leading physicists had held something of an emergency session on the topic, with eight of the nine announcing the claims as being debunked, using words ranging from incompetent to damning, and even insinuating fraud had been at work.
In the meantime the University of Utah, where Pons worked, had already asked the federal government to provide $25 million to pursue the effort. It is interesting to contrast the over-inflated claims and staunch defense by Pons of what were almost certainly errors in his experimental technique with the much more open way scientists at the Large Hadron Collider presented their equally unlikely findings of faster-than-light neutrinos. Speaking for the team at CERN, Professor Antonio Ereditato said as they published their hard-to-believe results, “When you don’t find anything, then you say ‘well, now I’m forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinize this’.” At this point the LHC results are suspected to be the fault of an errant GPS or cable connection, but CERN will be running more experiments in May.
In the meantime, the effort to confirm or debunk cold fusion continues, with scientific panelscontinuing to split over whether it is plausible, and if so, whether any evidence has confirmed its existence.
eFilm, also called Silicon Film, was one of the most promising products that never was. A clever combination of the convenience of a 35mm sized cartridge that would fit in your existing film SLR with a CMOS sensor that recorded digital images, it promised to make digital photography a reality without digital cameras. Except that no one is sure whether it ever really existed.
The product, called EFS-1, was unveiled at PMA, the photo marketing tradeshow, in 2001, to much fanfare. Unfortunately, audience members noticed that the images displayed were different than the models being photographed, leading them to conclude the demo was in fact a hoax.
Shortly thereafter, Silicon Film announced that it had suspended production due to failing FCC testing — which the FCC denied. By September the company had closed its doors. Clearly there was a lot of technology in use at Silicon Film, and there were real prototypes built, but the inflated promises to investors and the repeated trumpeting of upcoming breakthroughs to the market, along with the likelihood that their first demo might have been a fraud, qualify eFilm as one of the longest running hoaxes on Silicon Valley.
A mini-version of this hoax was unveiled as a website re35.net, by an advertising firm as a branding exercise for a mythical film-to-digital conversion company. To help avoid confusion, the site now features a pop-up letting visitors know that while appealing, the product is fictional.
100 mpg carburetor
This one has been around since I was a kid. As the story has it, Charles Nelson Pogue invented a 100+mpg carb back in the 1930s. Leaving aside the problem that his design would only have worked with the older gasoline formulations in use back then, and not with the gas we use today, no one ever actually got a carb from him that delivered more than 35mpg — and that with a loss of power.
$500 Denon Ethernet Cable
For decades audiophiles have argued about whether expensive cables sound better than plain old copper wire. Some audio sites have had to ban the topic, perhaps for fear it would turn into a shooting war. Video brought us more of the same, but with an increasing number of skeptics when it came to digital connections like HDMI — after all they argued, bits is bits. While there are plenty of arguments pro and con for audio and video cables, Denon decided to push things over the top.
The Denon AKDL1 “Dedicated Link Cable” is a $500 interconnect for Denon’s line of internet-ready receivers. Except that all it does is connect the receiver to the internet, just like a $4 6-foot patch cable. Perhaps my favorite bullet from the product description is that it is “designed to thoroughly eliminate adverse effects from vibration.”
Pranksters quickly hijacked the product reviews, piling less and less plausible praise on the product in hundreds of sometimes hilarious offerings. One of my favorites gives the cable one star for being “too fast” and “delivering the music before I want to hear it.” Now I don’t really know if Denon introduced the product with some sense of irony, as they seem to have been silent on the matter. Denon is no longer listed as the seller on Amazon, and most of the sellers now appear to be going along with the prank, but lest you doubt the cable, the product datasheet is on the Denon website.
War of the Worlds
Orson Welles adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” on his Mercury Theater radio broadcast is one of the most famous and most effective uses of technology to create a mass delusion. Radio was very new when the Halloween episode was broadcast, and despite the date and disclaimers during the show, many listeners were taken in, and in turn freaked out. The show’s no-commercial format may have helped lend it credibility, as of course did the very real-sounding effects and faked on-location broadcasts from the Martians’ landing spot at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey and later from Manhattan itself.
Much more recently, a UK TV station pulled off what must be one of the most elaborate reality TV hoaxes of all time with its show Space Cadets. It convinced 10 lucky contestants that they’d been chosen to be the first ever space tourists, and packed them off to a Russian space training facility where three were actually sent up into orbit in a ship somewhat like the US space shuttle. Except that it was all a ruse. They had never left England, and the ship was an amazing amalgamation of special effects in a hangar on disused airbase. The audience was in on the joke from the beginning — leading some to wonder whether the apparently quite gullible contestants might also be part of the joke. Hollywood-style sound effects piped through an elaborate hidden speaker system were crucial to the success of the illusion, as were the hydraulic jacks and airbags that allowed the fake spacecraft to “take off” and move around.
In many ways the best part of watching the show is the description of the elaborate fakery, accompanied by the unknowingly ironic comments of the contestants when they blurt out quips such as “it looks just like a movie” when they see a faked version of their spacecraft for the first time. Embedded above is the YouTube video of the beginning of their space flight, but I have to warn you its quite addictive, so don’t expect to stop after the first clip!
For those feeling sorry for the very embarrassed contestants, they did each win a sizable sum of real cash, and a trip to a space camp where they trained for a flight in a zero-g simulation flight.
Those are just the start…
It was tough picking just a few of the many famous hoaxes foisted off on the public over the centuries. Perpetual motion machines have been promoted, funded and debunked for centuries. Crop circles have popped up around the world, with many debunked and some created using high-tech magnetrons. More recently the fake Internet Explorer IQ study took in many who heard what they expected when it reported IE users had lower IQs than others. Of course, not to be outdone, Microsoft itself was the source of the Microsoft iLoo — which was either a pure hoax or a killed-off project. If you missed all the fuss over the Icarus-like human-powered flight project this week, there is no better place to start than the project’s website.