11 of the Greatest Pranks of All Time
Think that time you filled your friend’s dorm room with hundreds of water-filled plastic cups was impressive? These large-scale pranks made headlines around the world—and will give you something to aspire to. Presented in no particular order:
1. BBC Announces that Big Ben Is Going Digital
In 1980, a BBC World Service news announcement reported that Big Ben would be given a digital display. Not only that, the iconic clock’s now-useless hands would be given away to the first four people who called in. While most people reacted with shock and anger, one Japanese seaman immediately called the station with hopes of claiming his prize.
2. An Iceberg Appears in Sydney Harbor
On April 1, 1978, residents of Sydney, Australia, awoke to find a gigantic iceberg floating in Sydney Harbor. Days before the prank, electronics entrepreneur Dick Smith announced that an iceberg he had towed from Antarctica would be arriving in Sydney the following week (to give the exact date, he felt, would be a tip-off). And sure enough, there it was. The public was agog at the spectacle—the Australian navy even called Smith to ask if he needed help mooring his iceberg—until a rainstorm revealed the iceberg for what it truly was: A barge covered in sheets of white plastic and fire-fighting foam.
3. Taco Bell Buys the Liberty Bell
In 1996, Taco Bell tried to take corporate sponsorship to a whole new level by buying a bit of history. On April 1, the fast food chain took out full-page ads in six of the country’s biggest newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Philadelphia Inquirer, announcing that “in an effort to help the national debt,” it had purchased the Liberty Bell. According to the (fictional) bulletin, the Liberty Bell would remain available to the public but would split its time between Philly and Taco Bell's headquarters in Irvine, California.
Distressed calls (including from aides to two U.S. senators) to the National Park Service and Taco Bell headquarters prompted Taco Bell to issue a second—this time real—press release revealing the hoax and pledging to donate $50,000 for the Liberty Bell’s upkeep.
4. A British News Show Convinces Viewers That Spaghetti Grows on Trees
“It isn’t only in Britain that spring this year has taken everyone by surprise,” BBC current affairs program Panorama began a broadcast in 1957. It continued, “Here in the Ticino, on the borders of Switzerland and Italy, the slopes overlooking Lake Lugano have already burst into flower, at least a fortnight earlier than usual. But what, you may ask, has the early and welcome arrival of bees and blossom to do with food? Well it’s simply that the past winter, one of the mildest in living memory, has had its effect in other ways as well. Most important of all, it’s resulted in an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop.”
The three-minute segment included footage of Swiss spaghetti harvesters pulling the pasta off tree branches. Hundreds of Britons, many of who didn’t eat the Italian dish regularly, called the BBC to ask how they could grow a spaghetti tree of their own. Without missing a beat, the BBC replied, "Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."
5. Wisconsin Students Move Lady Liberty to Lake Mendota
University of Wisconsin students Leon Varjian and Jim Mallon made a bold campaign promise in order to win election to the Wisconsin Student Association in 1978: They would bring the Statue of Liberty to Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota. The two won the election and, in February 1979, they set out to make good on their pledge. It took Varjian and Mallon three days—and $4,000 of student fees—to assemble their Lady Liberty proxy out of plywood, chicken wire, papier mache, and muslin cloth and assemble it on the frozen lake.
This wasn’t Varjian’s first prank (although it may be his most time-consuming); in 1977 he petitioned to have the school named the “University of New Jersey” (Varjian’s home state) so that “students could go to a fancy East Coast school without moving.” Mallon, on the other hand, would go on to create the cult comedy television show Mystery Science Theater 3000.
6. MIT Students Build a Gigantic Game of Tetris
Students at MIT devised the idea of turning the 295-foot tall Green Building on campus into a larger-than-life, playable Tetris game in 1993—and in 2012, they finally made it a reality. It took the hackers four years of planning and two months of sleepless nights in order to construct what the MIT student newspaper The Tech calls the “holy grail of hacks.” Through a complicated system of wirelessly controlled LED lights, the talented engineers transformed 153 of the building’s windows into the falling colored blocks, which were controlled by players at a podium.
7. Caltech Trolls the Rose Bowl
During “The Great Rose Bowl Hoax” of 1961, Caltech students orchestrated a surprise for the University of Washington Huskies during their halftime card stunt show (in which people in the stands used signs to spell out messages of support for their team). A crafty group of Caltech students broke into the dorm housing Washington’s cheerleaders and changed each of their thousands of instruction note cards. During halftime, the prank went off without a hitch: When the Huskies fans flipped their signs over, they spelled out “Caltech.” The prank made national news.
The best part of the mischief? Caltech doesn’t even have a football team.
8. Nixon Announces He’s Running for Re-Election
In 1992, National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation reported that Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 following the Watergate Scandal, had declared his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. To corroborate their story, NPR played a clip of Nixon declaring his intention to run and claiming, “I never did anything wrong, and I won't do it again.”
As is the way of these things, callers flooded NPR with questions and cries of outrage. It wasn’t until the second half of the program that host John Hockenberry revealed that the whole broadcast had been an April Fool’s Day joke. Comedian Rich Little—nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Voices”—was responsible for “Nixon’s” speech. [Editor's Note: The original version of this entry incorrectly stated that Nixon was impeached. We regret the error.]
9. Swedish News Station Convinces Readers Stockings Can Turn Their Black-and-White TVs to Color
An 1962 April Fool’s Day broadcast from what was then Sweden’s only television network, SVT, told viewers that they would be able to see the normally black-and-white broadcast in color… if they had the right materials.
“Technical expert” Kjell Stensson explained to viewers, in highly scientific details, that if they stretched a pair of nylon stockings over their television sets, the light would be filtered in such a way as to allow them to see the broadcast in color. To best see the results, Stensson recommended, viewers would need to move their heads from side to side as they watched. Needless to say, the thousands of viewers who fell for the hoax looked a little bit silly.
10. An Easter Island Figure Washes Ashore in the Netherlands
While Swedes were covering their TVs with stockings, the Dutch thought an iconic landmark had washed upon their shores. On March 29, 1962, a man walking on the beach near Zandvoort, Netherlands, found what he could only identify as an Easter Island statue. A few days later, on April 1, an expert flew in from Norway to inspect the figure and declared that it was indeed an authentic artifact, carried from the South Pacific to Europe. The statue was put on display in the town’s center for all to see.
By day’s end, the sculpture’s creator, a Dutch artist named Edo van Tetterode, had come clean and confessed to planting the “artifact” on the beach. The following year, Tetterode founded the National April 1st Society, and, in a tradition that would carry on until his death in 1996, awarded a small bronze Easter Island head trophy to the perpetrator of the year’s best prank.
11. Alabama Changes the Value of Pi
The Alabama state legislature forever changed math, science, and the world as we know it in 1998, when it declared that the mathematical constant pi would now be valued at 3.0, instead of the usual 3.14159—or so claimed the April issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter. In a story by April Holiday for the “Associalized Press,” experts argue for and against Alabama’s radical change, which was said to be made because 3.0 is a “biblical value.” The story quickly went viral—email existed in 1998, you guys!—but no one knew the real extent of the hoax’s success until Alabama legislators began receiving hundreds of calls in protest.nix