11 of History’s Biggest Pranksters

istock / getty images
istock / getty images

When you think about the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t, “Marie Curie, you rascal.” Likewise, solemn pictures of FDR and his fireside chats probably don’t inspire you to say, “That FDR was such a scamp.” But the truth is, even some of the most serious figures from history liked a good joke now and then.

1. Ben Franklin

Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack in the 1700s, beginning in 1732. It included weather forecasts, household hints, puzzles, and (in 1733) a prediction of the exact date and time of the death of Franklin’s good friend, Titan Leeds. When 3:29 p.m. on October 17, 1733, came and went without a visit from the Grim Reaper, Franklin knew he would have to change his tactic for the following year. In the next Almanack, he claimed that Leeds had indeed died—and that someone had since fraudulently assumed his identity. In 1738, Leeds actually did pass away. Rather than admit that he had been joking for the past five years, Franklin published a piece praising the men who had stolen Leeds’ identity for giving up the ghost, so to speak.

2. Mark Twain

Known for his exaggerations and yarns, it probably comes as no surprise that Samuel Clemens wrote a few stories that weren’t entirely true back in his reporter days. While he was writing for the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada, Twain came up with a whopper of a tale about the local discovery of a petrified man. He thought the way the man was sitting—thumbing his nose—would have given the story away as a joke, but no one put two and two together. Disappointed that his satire of what was apparently a widespread fascination with petrified objects had gone unappreciated, Twain later wrote, “My petrified Man was a disheartening failure; for everybody received him in innocent good faith.”

3. Abraham Lincoln

Though Lincoln was known for letting his boys get into plenty of mischief, it turns out he was pretty good at getting up to a little trouble himself. Abe was staying at the Tenbrook Hotel in Monticello, Illinois, when he saw a couple of youngsters playing with an inflated pig bladder, the 1800s answer to the modern-day balloon. He told the kids that they would get more enjoyment out of their toy if they heated it in the hotel’s fireplace. When they did, the bladder exploded, sending hot coals flying across the room. When Lincoln tried to help sweep them up, the broom caught fire. He nearly burned the hotel down.

4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Lincoln wasn’t the only prankster president. One night when he was 10 years old, young Franklin Roosevelt sneaked into his nurse’s room and slipped some effervescent powder into her chamber pot. When she used the pot the next morning, it steamed and roiled violently, making the poor nurse think there was something seriously wrong with her health. Though the nurse never figured out what happened, Franklin’s father did—and he couldn’t stop laughing about it. “Consider yourself spanked,” he told the future president.

5. Virginia Woolf

One hardly thinks of the author of Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse as a lighthearted jokester, but the Dreadnought Hoax proves she had a few tricks up her sleeve. In February of 1910, Woolf and five of her friends dressed in turbans and caftans, darkened their faces with makeup, and told the British Navy that they were Abyssinian princes. They managed to get themselves a tour of the H.M.S. Dreadnought, even crossing paths with Woolf’s cousin, a naval officer on board the ship, at one point. The disguises were so good that he was none the wiser. Though the imposters vowed to keep their escapade a secret, news leaked, and the prank was front-page news a few days later.

6. Marcel Duchamp

As a joke, French-American artist Marcel Duchamp entered a urinal into an art exhibit in 1917. The joke ended up being on him: The Fountain, as he called it, ended up becoming one of his most famous works, not to mention “an icon of twentieth-century art.”

7. Joseph Haydn

A cacophony of discordant noise might not seem very funny to you or me, but it left composer Joseph Haydn in stitches. He once hired a menagerie of musicians for an outdoor performance and had them scatter themselves throughout the neighborhood. At a specified time, Haydn asked them all to start playing—but not any specific piece of music. Just anything. The resulting noise was so awful that residents booed, hissed, and contacted the cops. Though most of the musicians got away, the drummer and the violinist from the bizarre band were arrested.

8. Marie Curie

If you think Curie’s prank involves radium or other lab shenanigans, think again—her tricky streak is pretty mild. Noticing that a relative of hers drank copious amounts of milk every day, Curie slowly thinned it out over time until he noticed. A little more advanced: Marie and her cousin once nailed the same relative’s furniture and shoes to the ceiling.

9. Leonardo Da Vinci

In order to shock and amaze his pals, Da Vinci crafted a miniature dragon for himself. He fashioned wings out of scales and attached them to a small lizard, then delighted in frightening his friends by pulling the creature out of his pocket, claiming that he had tamed it himself.

10. John F. Kennedy

As a young man at Choate High School in 1931, JFK pulled one of those pranks you think only happens in 1980s movies about all-boy prep schools: He threw firecrackers in a toilet and blew the lid off. Headmasters later denounced the vandalistic act, saying it was perpetrated by “muckers.” Pleased with the reaction, Kennedy went on to found the “Muckers Club,” a social circle that included 12 of his closest friends.

11. Thomas Edison

Edison was just 19 when he worked for Western Union, which may explain why he loved pranking his co-workers so much. Among his many gems: wiring a water bucket to a battery so it would shock anyone who took a sip.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.