The Museum of Hoaxes
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Technology Hoaxes
The Mini Cooper Autonomous Robot, 2004
The website of Colin Mayhew offered details on how this eccentric, but apparently brilliant, engineer had built an "autonomous crash-preventing robot" from the body of a BMW Mini Cooper r50. Video showed the humanoid robot in action, stopping a car from crashing into a wall. The Mini Cooper Autonomous Robot was eventually revealed to be an elaborate viral marketing campaign designed to promote the new Mini Cooper. More…
The Microsoft iLoo, 2003
MSN UK, a division of Microsoft, announced the imminent introduction of the iLoo, the world's first internet-enabled port-a-potty. The iLoo would boast a wireless keyboard, height-adjustable flat plasma screen, broadband internet access, and toilet paper printed with URL suggestions. The press reacted with incredulity to the announcement, and as the press scrutiny intensified, a Microsoft representative eventually admitted that the iLoo was a hoax. But the next day, the company reversed itself, confessing that the iLoo actually wasn't a hoax but was instead a product that had temporarily been under serious consideration but was no longer going to be developed. More…
Spud Server, 2000
It purported to be a web server powered entirely by potatoes, serving up web pages at an appropriately slow, potato-powered speed. The site gained international media exposure, reported on by both USA Today and the BBC. But the media exposure triggered feelings of guilt in the creators of Spud Server, who then confessed that unfortunately it was all a joke. They explained that, "Every time we did another interview, we kept thinking, 'This will be the last one.' . . . But it kind of snowballed." However, they did note that, in theory, building a potato-powered web server was technically feasible. But it would require A LOT of potatoes. More…
The Caltech Sweepstakes Caper, 1975
Caltech student Becky Hartsfield shows off the prizes she won. Caltech is known for producing world-class scientists and engineers. But a few of its students have also demonstrated a flair for the law, as a highly controversial 1975 prank that turned on the legalistic reading of a sweepstakes entry form proved. The sweepstakes in question was held by McDonald's. It ran from March 3rd to March 23rd, 1975, at 187 participating McDonald's restaurants in Southern California. The prizes included a year of groceries, a Datsun Z, McDonald's gift certificates, and cash. But one part of the contest rules caught the attention of three Caltech students... More…
Instant Color TV, 1962
In 1962 there was only one tv channel in Sweden, and it broadcast in black and white. On April 1st of that year, the station's technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to a new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to display color reception. All they had to do was pull a nylon stocking over their tv screen. Stensson proceeded to demonstrate the process. Thousands of people were taken in. Regular color broadcasts only commenced in Sweden on April 1, 1970. More…
The Worcester Aeroplane Hoax, 1909
Six years after the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first flight in a heavier-than-air craft, aviation technology was still fairly primitive. Planes could only fly a few miles. But in 1909, a Massachusetts inventor, Wallace Tillinghast, announced a breakthrough. He claimed to have built a plane capable of flying 300 miles, carrying three passengers, and maintaining a speed of 120 mph. But he refused to show the plane to anyone, saying he was worried about other inventors stealing his ideas. But he did reveal that in a test flight (conducted at night) he had flown from Massachusetts down to New York City, circled the Statue of Liberty,... More…

The Gold Accumulator, 1896
Prescott Jernegan claimed he had found a way to cheaply extract gold from sea water. His "Gold Accumulator" consisted of a wooden box, inside of which was a pan of mercury mixed with a secret ingredient. A wire connected the mercury to a small battery. When lowered into the ocean, this contraption supposedly sucked gold out of the water. A test conducted in Narragansett Bay in February 1897 proved the gold accumulator worked. After a few hours the box was raised, full of gold flakes. Soon Jernegan had found investors who helped him found the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company. When the company offered stock, the share price rapidly rose... More…
Freund’s Electric Sugar Fraud, 1889
In the mid-1880s, Henry C. Freund showed up in New York, claiming he had invented a process that would revolutionize the sugar refining industry. He said he could refine one ton of raw sugar for 80 cents, whereas the techniques currently in use cost around $10 a ton. Plus, his method took only ten minutes, and it produced a high-quality granulated sugar, far finer than any seen before. But he insisted on keeping his process secret, disclosing only that it somehow involved electricity. On this enigmatic premise alone, he found investors willing to help him form a business, The Electric Sugar Refining Company, valued at one million dollars. But... More…
The Diaphote Hoax, 1880
On February 10, 1880 an article ran in the Daily Times (of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) describing a remarkable invention recently demonstrated by a local inventor, Dr. H.E. Licks. The invention allowed images to be transmitted by telegraph. In other words, it resembled what people today would recognize as a television. However, Licks called his invention a "diaphote," from the Greek dia meaning "through" and photos meaning "light". 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…
Keely Motor Company, 1875
John Worrell Keely founded the Keely Motor Company in 1875 in order to develop and commercialize his invention: a "vibratory generator" that required only a quart of water to generate the equivalent of the power needed to pull a fully-loaded train for over 75 minutes. Following successful demonstrations of this miraculous device in his workshop, investors rushed to give him money, even though the scientific community derided his claims. For fourteen years he kept working on his engine, promising investors that the moment was just around the corner when he would unveil it to the world. The investors believed him and kept pouring money into his... 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 Great Chess Automaton, 1770
Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen built what he claimed was a chess-playing "thinking machine". It consisted of a wooden figure dressed in Turkish clothes whose trunk emerged out of a large wooden box. When wound up, the figure played chess against human opponents, actually moving pieces on its own, and it almost always won. The secret was that a man was hidden in the box, controlling the movements of the wooden figure. More…
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Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1849 1850-1899 1900-1949 1950-1979 1980s 1990s 2000s

All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.