The Museum of Hoaxes
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Physics Hoaxes
The Sokal Hoax, 1996
An article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of the cultural studies journal Social Text. Written in a typical academic style (slightly overbearing, verbose, and armored with a bristling flank of footnotes), it appeared to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. But on the day of its publication, Sokal revealed that it was actually intended as a parody, a fact which the editorial board of Social Text had failed to recognize. Sokal argued that the publication of his parody demonstrated "an apparent decline in the standards of rigor in certain precincts of the academic humanities." More…
Professor Wingard’s Nameless Force, 1876
In February 1876, 'Professor' James C. Wingard of New Orleans announced he had invented a powerful new weapon that would utterly destroy any naval vessel, iron or otherwise, "so as to leave no trace of them in their former shape." Wingard was coy about the exact means by which his weapon operated. He would only say that it projected a "nameless force," which somehow involved the use of electricity, applied without any direct connection between the machine and the object to be destroyed -- and it supposedly worked at a distance of up to five miles, far beyond the range of any other gun or cannon. In other words, this was a nineteenth-century... More…
Redheffer’s Perpetual Motion Machine, 1812
In 1812 a Philadelphia man, Charles Redheffer, claimed to have invented a perpetual motion machine that required no source of energy to run. He built a working model of the machine and applied for funds from the city government to build a larger version. But when inspectors from the city examined it, they realized that Redheffer had simply hidden the power source. To expose Redheffer, they commissioned a local engineer to build a similar machine, and when they showed this to Redheffer he fled the city. (This replica is still owned by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.) A year later, Redheffer attempted the same scam in New York City.... More…
The Electric Kite Hoax
On October 19, 1752, the Pennsylvania Gazette published a brief description of an experiment recently conducted by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, the article said, had flown a kite in a thunderstorm, causing electricity to be conducted down the line of the kite and electrifying a key tied to it. This demonstrated that lightning, as many had speculated, was a form of electricity. Franklin's electric kite became the most famous experiment of the eighteenth century, helping to make Franklin famous throughout Europe and America. And yet, some historians argue that it probably never happened. They point to a curious lack of details about the... More…
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