Nobody’s quite sure where or when or how April Fools’ Day started. But what is known is that it’s been around for a long, long, long time — as in, there might even be a reference to it in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”
In the hundreds of years since people first started celebrating it, at least one thing hasn’t changed: People are still gullible.
Here are some of the best April Fools’ Day pranks from the last 300-plus years (in chronological order).
1698: The washing of the lions
In possibly the oldest recorded example of an April Fools’ joke ever, Londoners were invited to attend the ceremonial “washing of the lions” that was said to take place annually in the moat outside the Tower of London, according to hoaxes.org. The whole thing was bogus, but it drew such a crowd that the prank ended up becoming something of an April Fools’ Day fixture, repeated year after year well into the 19th century. “Wicked conspirators” even began making a buck off of it by printing and selling fake tickets to the nonexistent event, which instructed guests to enter through the “white gate” — also nonexistent.
1708: The death of John Partridge
In February of 1708, writing under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff, “Gulliver’s Travels” author Jonathan Swift published an almanac of fake astrological predictions, according to hoaxes.org. For his very first prediction, he foretold the death “by a raging fever” of the celebrity astrologer John Partridge, which he said would take place on March 29 at exactly 11 p.m. Infuriated, Partridge publicly branded Bickerstaff a fraud, but on March 29, Swift went ahead and published a letter, once again as Bickerstaff, confirming that, indeed, Partridge was dead.
News circulated slowly, so it wasn’t until April 1 that Partridge discovered his own passing when someone knocked on his door to see if he had any specific requests for his funeral service. Despite his insistence that he wasn’t dead, the public was slow to believe him. People on the street would stare or approach and comment on his uncanny resemblance to a recently deceased acquaintance of theirs. This was partially because other writers, including some whose deaths Partridge had himself erroneously predicted in his own “Merlinus Almanac,” began publishing letters backing up Bickerstaff’s claims.
The hoax plagued Partridge for the rest of his life, often forcing him to try in vain to prove he was who he claimed he was. He died without ever finding out the real identity of Isaac Bickerstaff.
1878: Edison’s food machine
Having just invented the phonograph the year before, Thomas Edison’s genius was undisputed in 1878. So, when the New York Graphic published a piece claiming that Edison had solved the problem of world hunger with his latest invention, a machine that could manufacture “biscuit, meat, vegetables and wine” out of nothing more than air, water and dirt, people believed it. Other newspapers jumped on the story, spreading the news far and wide, proclaiming, once again, Edison’s unsurpassed genius.
The prank was finally revealed when the New York Graphic republished one particularly verbose article, according to hoaxes.org, about the invention and what it meant for humanity but with a new headline that read, “They bite!”
1906: Wave vs. frog
Thousands of residents of Wichita, Kansas, gathered on the banks of the Arkansas River on the morning of April 1, 1906, as two freak natural occurrences were set to collide in what was sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Unfortunately, no one thought to check the calendar to see what day it was.
The joke originated with the front page of the Wichita Daily Eagle, which reported that a giant, 12-foot-high wave caused by heavy snow in the mountains was traveling down the river from the north. At exactly the same time, warm waters in the south had caused hundreds of thousands of frog eggs to hatch, and the frogs were now migrating north up the river in such numbers that they completely covered the riverbed for 11 miles. According to the newspaper, the two forces — the wave from the north and the frogs from the south — were both scheduled to hit Wichita at approximately 10 a.m., and it was anyone’s guess what would happen when they met.
Eager townspeople showed up in droves and waited for three hours before they realized it was all a prank.
1955: Contra-polar energy
For its April 1955 issue, Popular Electronics ran a story about a newly declassified technology that had been developed in secret during World War II called “contra-polar energy.”
According to the magazine, if applied to electronics, this new form of energy would make them to do the exact opposite of what they were normally used for. So, for example, instead of a beam of light, a table lamp plugged into a socket carrying contra-polar energy would give off a beam of dark. Likewise, a soldering iron, instead of producing intense heat, would produce intense, freezing cold.
Despite the fact that the subheading for the article read, “In keeping with the first day of April,” Popular Electronics received so many inquiries about the completely made-up technology that it was forced to clarify on two separate occasions — once in 1959 and again, years later, in 1963 — that it was just a joke.
1957: The Swiss spaghetti harvest
Marking possibly the first time a TV program was used for an April Fools’ Day prank, this one was perpetrated by the “Panorama” news show. At the time, “Panorama” was the BBC’s flagship news program, and its anchor, Richard Dimbleby, was seen as a voice of nearly unimpeachable authority.
At the end of its April 1, 1957, episode, though, a segment was aired profiling the “Swiss spaghetti harvest.” According to Dimbleby’s narration, the mild winter that year along with the eradication of the dreaded spaghetti weevil had resulted in an unprecedented spaghetti crop in Switzerland where pasta noodles growing from tree branches were shown being picked by women in traditional Swiss costumes.
“Many of you, I am sure, will have seen pictures of the vast spaghetti plantations in the Po Valley,” Dimbleby said. “For the Swiss, however, it tends to be more of a family affair.”
He told viewers that the spaghetti is then laid out to dry in the Alpine air before being used for an end-of-harvest spaghetti feast.
“Picked early in the day, dried in the sun, and so brought fresh from garden to table at the very peak of condition. For those who love this dish,” Dimbleby concluded, “there is nothing like real home-grown spaghetti.”
The segment was met with mixed reactions, according to hoaxes.org. Some complained that the BBC had violated its audiences’ trust.
A huge number, though, were just anxious to find out how they could grow a spaghetti tree of their own. To answer that, BBC telephone operators came up with a helpful bit of advice: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”
1976: Zero-G Day
The BBC, apparently undeterred by the backlash it received over the Swiss spaghetti harvest prank, was responsible for this gem, too:
According to theweek.com, in a radio broadcast for the BBC in 1976, British astronomer Patrick Moore announced that, due to the specific alignment of the planets as Pluto passed behind Jupiter, Earth’s gravity would temporarily be weakened. Listeners were told that if, at precisely 9:47 a.m., they jumped into the air, they would feel like they were floating for a just a moment before Earth’s gravity kicked in again as usual.
Scores of people called in excitedly claiming to have felt it, including at least one woman who said she floated around her house before landing again.
Zero-G Day surfaced again at the beginning of 2014 with the exact same explanation, according to slate.com. This time, the magic date was Jan. 4.
1998: The left-handed Whopper
In a full-page ad that ran in USA Today in 1998, Burger King announced that it would now offer a burger specially made for one continually underrepresented part of society: south paws. So, what distinguished the left-handed Whopper from a regular one? The toppings and condiments would all be rotated 180 degrees on the bun. This would in turn redistribute the weight of the sandwich and make it more comfortable when held in the left hand, according to the announcement.
Jim Watkins, senior vice president of Burger King marketing at the time, called this new product “the ultimate ‘have it your way’ for our left-handed customers,” according to themarysue.com.
Following the announcement, Burger Kings across the country were flooded with orders by customers wanting to make sure they got the correct orientation on their sandwiches.
2014: Why doesn’t America read anymore?
Proving some troubling points about the way news stories are digested these days, NPR pulled one of the great April Fools’ pranks when it posted a fake article with a headline designed to elicit a response: “Why doesn’t America read anymore?”
For anyone who took the time to click on the headline and see what the article was about, this is what they would have found:
“Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools’ Day! We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven't actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let's see what people have to say about this story. Best wishes and have an enjoyable day.”
Immediately, the comments began to roll in — people defending their own book consumption (“I read between five and 20-plus books in a month,” one person wrote), lamenting the decline of literacy in America or even just criticizing NPR for resorting to gross over-generalizations.