10 Of The Greatest Pranks of the 20th Century

10 Of The Greatest Pranks of the 20th Century

Stephanie Schoppert - January 19, 2017

April Fool’s Day has become something of a modern challenge to pranksters of the world. For as long as the day has existed, mischief makers have sought to have a little fun in bigger and better ways. As technology improves and people get more daring and more creative, the pranks become harder to detect and fool more and more people.

So from crops of spaghetti to UFOs to an iceberg driven all the way down to Sydney Harbor, here are some of the greatest pranks of the 20th century.

10 Of The Greatest Pranks of the 20th Century

Spaghetti Harvest

It was April 1, 1957 when the British news show Panorama decided it was time to play a joke on the entire world. The show featured a 3 minute segment in which the show’s highly respected anchor Richard Dimbleby spoke about the very successful spaghetti harvest in Switzerland. He announced that the disappearance of the spaghetti weevil and a mild winter led to a huge bumper crop. The report also featured video of people harvesting spaghetti noodles from trees and placing them into baskets. The prank worked and hundreds phoned the BBC asking where they could get their own spaghetti tree.

The idea for the prank was hatched by Charles de Jaeger who was a cameraman for Panorama. He had a reputation for being a bit of a practical joker so it is not surprising that he is behind the very first instance of television being used for a practical joke. At the time Charles de Jaeger was set to be filming in Switzerland anyway so he could combine travel expenses.

After pitching the idea, it was approved and he was given a budget £100. During his March trip to Switzerland he purchased 20 pounds of uncooked spaghetti. He found that the best way to make it hang from the trees was to keep it uncooked and pressed between wet cloths until they were ready to hang and film.

He then hired local girls in national dress to harvest the crop, place them into wicker baskets and then lay them in the sun to dry. He also had a huge spaghetti feast afterward for his actors which he also filmed. The whole bit was sent to London, edited and then shown on the most respected news program in Britain. The BBC did release a statement about the joke that evening but calls requesting spaghetti trees continued to pour in. Frustrated BBC operators finally just said “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

10 Of The Greatest Pranks of the 20th Century
Richard Nixon. CNN

Vote Nixon ‘92

Presidential elections in the United States have always been filled with some sort of drama or controversy but few are filled with as many laughs as the announcement of Nixon running for president in the 1992 election. On April 1, the “Talk of the Nation” radio program featured Richard Nixon declaring his candidacy with the slogan “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.” The show went all in and did an entire segment on Nixon’s decision.

The show even featured a discussion with Laurence Tribe, a Harvard professor, and Howard Fineman, a reporter for Newsweek, about Nixon’s entrance into the race. The show also played a sound clip from press secretary Torrie Clarke stating that the announcement was trying to upstage their foreign policy initiative.

The sound clip was from when Nixon really did run for president and everyone else on the show was in on the joke. It was done so well that plenty of people were fooled. Many people called into the show to voice their opinions on Nixon in the race, many of which believed it was a bad idea. After the fact, the show admitted that they only aired people who seemed oblivious to the joke and never aired the calls from people who caught on.

At the end when host John Hockenberry announced the prank no one was surprised to find out that the comedian that had done the voice of Richard Nixon had been none other than Rich Little. The man of a thousand voices had managed to convince thousands that one of the most notorious presidents in American history was attempting to run again.

10 Of The Greatest Pranks of the 20th Century
CBS News

Swedish Television in Color in 1962

Sweden showed in 1962 that they were not above televised pranks either and they came up with one that had men lining up to buy nylons. On April 1, 1962 Svergies Television (SVT) was the only channel available to people in Sweden. It only broadcast in black and white which was disappointing for many of its viewers. However, the station’s technical expert Kjell Stensson had a solution for that problem that was cheap and easy. The broadcast showed Kjell Stensson sitting in front of television. He said that what he was about do was very technical and it had to do with the “prismatic nature of light” and the phenomenon of “double slit interference.”

He said that all the technical talk wasn’t important but what was important was that researchers recently found that a find mesh screen placed on a black and white television screen would make the image on the television appear to be in color. He said it had to do with bending light and that you did not need the fancy materials the researchers used.

All you needed was a pair of nylon stockings (he went into detail about just what type) and then you could cut them and tape them onto the television screen. Then voila! The image would be in color. He did say that you would need to be just the right distance from the screen and that you might have to turn your head side to side to alight the color spectrum.

The hoax worked so well that thousands lined up to buy nylons. People still talk about the memory of their fathers rushing to buy nylons to stretch over the television set. Unfortunately, it did not work and the Swedes had to wait until 1966 to see the first attempt by SVT to broadcast in color.

10 Of The Greatest Pranks of the 20th Century

Mount Edgecrumbe Eruption

It was just another peaceful day for the residents of the small town of Sitka, Alaska. The residents of the town lived within sight of a long dormant volcano which had not been active for centuries. Few people believed that there was any chance of the volcano erupting and so they just enjoyed the beautiful view that it provided. That was until the morning of April 1, 1974. The people of the town woke up to see black smoke rising up from the top of the mountain.

People left their homes and filled the streets to look at the mountain in worry. They feared that the smoke was a sure sign that the volcano was going to erupt and that the town was in immediate danger. Terrified calls came into the police and the Coast Guard. To get answers the Coast Guard sent a helicopter was sent to investigate and when it got over the crater, the pilot could not help but laugh. There in the middle of the crater was a stack of burning tires and the words “APRIL FOOL” in 50 foot black letters.

The prank was done by Oliver “Porky” Bicar who had been waiting and planning for three years for an April Fool’s Day clear enough to be able to see the mountain from the town. He arranged for a chopper to fly him up to the crater of the mountain. He placed 70 tires inside canvas slings that he could then attached to helicopter.

Then flew to the crater with some friends, taking with them smoke bombs, several gallons of kerosene, rags and paint. Then they lit the tires and made their way back home. They even made a point of telling the FAA controller and the local police of the plan. They just forgot to mention it to the Coast Guard.

10 Of The Greatest Pranks of the 20th Century
Tahlequah Daily Press

Easter Island Head in the Netherlands

On March 29, 1962, the tide brought something strange to the beach of Zandvoort, Netherlands. Edo van Tetterode told authorities that while walking along the beach he discovered what appeared to be an Easter Island Head. Those who saw the statue assumed that it must have traveled all the way from the South Pacific to the Netherlands by the ocean currents. News of the discovery spread quickly as experts from the Netherlands and around the world scrambled to get a look at the new Easter Island artifact.

A Norwegian expert took a very close look at the statue and he confirmed that it was authentic and that it came from Easter Island. The town rallied around their newfound treasure and put it on display in the town center. Thousands of people from all over the world traveled to get a close look and not a single person ever suspected the truth. At least not until Edo van Tetterode gave an interview about discovering the statue.

On April 1, during an interview with a TV news crew he admitted that he had actually carved the statue and planted it on the beach. He said that he had been inspired by research of Thor Heyerdahl and wanted to create his own artifact.

The following year, to encourage more tomfoolery in the Netherlands he created the National April 1 Society. Each year the society would award bronze replicas of Edo van Tetterode’s famous statue to those the society judged to have made the best jokes that year. The Society continued on until Edo van Tetterode died in 1996. The original statute remains on display in the front yard of Edo van Tetterode’s home and a much larger statue (also created by Tetterode) can also be found on the beach.

10 Of The Greatest Pranks of the 20th Century
Modern Notion

Fake Olympic Torch

This is one prank that doesn’t have anything to do with April Fools but plenty to do with people who just make assumptions. In 1956 runners were making their way across Australia carrying the Olympic torch. The relay was not going well. Summer rains had extinguished the flame, scorching heat threatened the runners and the torch was even dropped and broken.

But all of that strife was forgotten when it came time for the torch to be passed to Mayor Pat Hills in Sydney. Runner Harry Dillon was slated to pass the torch to the mayor who would then make a short speech and pass the torch to the next runner.

As time passed and it became clear the runner was late, the crowd became restless. When a runner appeared around the corner they cheered and let loose their camera flashes. Few noticed that the runner was not dressed like a runner and there was something odd about the torch. The Mayor took no notice either and took the torch and was about to begin his speech when someone whispered in his ear. “That’s not the torch.” What the Mayor held in his hand was a chair leg painted silver (the paint was still wet) topped with a plum pudding can. Inside the can was a flaming pair of underwear.

The Mayor took it in stride but the crowd grew unruly. When the real runner appeared ten minutes later, he needed a police escort to get through the crowd. The next runner also needed an escort to get through the crowd. The epic prank was pulled off by University student Barry Larkin who was part of a group of several students who plotted the prank. When he returned to campus he was given a hero’s welcome and goes down in history as one of the greatest college pranksters of all time.

10 Of The Greatest Pranks of the 20th Century
Open Minds TV

UFO Over London

Before dawn on April 1, 1989, police in London were swarmed with calls of terrified citizens who claimed to see a UFO in the sky. The large flying saucer with strobe lights was flying over the M25 and motorists were pulling over to use roadside emergency phones to call the police. Police and military were informed and kept on alert. Then the mysterious saucer started to make its way down to the in the ground in Surrey Field.

When the flying saucer landed, it was greeted by several policemen who warily approached the aircraft. In the dim light of morning it was still hard to make out but when a small figure with a bright green alien features emerged for a moment police did not know what to think. The small “alien” then turned and ran in the opposite direction.

As the police neared, the ruse was up. The UFO was nothing more than a giant hot air balloon that was outfitted with strobe lights and made to look like a spaceship. While it was enough to fool people in the dark and dim light of morning, as the sun rose, there was no hiding the truth. Sir Richard Branson then revealed himself to police who were less than amused. They had not only wasted their time but some admitted to being terrified to approach the spaceship. Eventually everyone did warm up to the joke though.

Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, was compelled to play the prank and land his spaceship in the middle of Hyde Park. He codenamed his endeavor “Project Wedgewood” and everything was going well until he got his UFO into the air. The wind caused him to change direction and forced him to land in Surrey Field instead of his original destination. The prank was such a success that Sir Richard Branson decided to continue to pull pranks every year.

10 Of The Greatest Pranks of the 20th Century
Daily Telegraph

Sydney Harbor Iceberg

Dick Smith was well known throughout Sydney in the 1970s not only as a multimillionaire businessman but also as a local adventurer. He had this crazy idea that few people believed that he could actually pull off. He said that he planned to tow an iceberg all the way from Antarctica to Sydney. Smith touted it as a brilliant business idea. He would moor the iceberg near the Sydney Opera House and then he would carve the iceberg into little cubes and sell them for the bargain price of just ten cents each. He claimed that these cubes that traveled through the seas all the way from Antarctica were guaranteed to improve the flavor of any drink. He had even come up with a brilliant name for them…Dicksicles.

Some truly believed that Dick Smith would pull it off, others had their doubts. But on April 1, 1978, sure enough there was a large iceberg floating in Sydney Harbor. Local residents began phoning in to radio stations and newspapers, they had to know what it was they that they were seeing. Ferry skippers who traveled the Harbor dubbed the floating iceberg Dickenberg 1.

Boats who came close enough to the iceberg were given free cubes. Everyone waited eagerly for the large iceberg to dock…until it started to rain. The rain revealed that the “iceberg” was little more than plastic sheets covered in firefighting foam and shaving cream.

The whole prank was based off the genuine idea of Dick Smith to bring an iceberg to Australia. When faced with the impossibility of the task, one of his staff members suggested faking the iceberg for April Fool’s Day. So that is what they did, in the wee hours of April 1, Dick Smith and his team worked to transform a simple barge into a floating iceberg. The whole stunt cost him about $1,450 which Dick Smith admitted was very cheap for the amount of publicity he got from it.

10 Of The Greatest Pranks of the 20th Century

Norwegian Wine Surplus

Perhaps one of the cruelest pranks on the list comes from Norway in which wine lovers were tricked into thinking that they were going to get a bargain on great wine. On April 1, 1950, the Afenposten, the largest newspaper in Norway placed an announcement on its front page. The announcement stated that the Vinmonopolet (the only stores allowed to sell alcohol in Norway) had just gotten a large shipment of wine from France.

There was just one problem with the large shipment – the wine was coming in barrels and the store had run out of bottles. So, in order to get rid of the wine that they did not have bottles for, they were offering the wine at 75% off AND tax-free, as long as people brought their own containers. That was a deal that was too good to pass up for Norwegian wine-lovers.

The stores opened at 10 a.m. and by the time the doors opened there were already long lines of people carrying all sorts of buckets and basins in order to carry their wine purchases. Some people had read about the sale on their way to work and then stopped off to buy buckets in order to go to Vinmonopolet. Sadly, they were all disappointed to find out that when the doors opened there was no such sale to be had. Instead of the streets running with wine they were filled with empty buckets as people just dropped what they had brought when they did not need it.

Part of the reason why people were so willing to believe the ruse was the fact that bottles were in short supply following the war. So, it was not far-fetched to think that a large wine shipment had exhausted the store of bottles, but the sadly the sale was too good to be true.

10 Of The Greatest Pranks of the 20th Century
Loch Ness Mystery Blogspot

The Body of the Loch Ness Monster Found

It was the morning of March 31, 1972 when a team of scientists from the Flamingo Park Zoo in Yorkshire were having breakfast at the Foyers House hotel. The hotel was on the shore of Loch Ness and the scientists were there trying to prove the existence of the fabled sea monster. As they ate they were approached by the manager of the hotel.

The manager told them that someone had called stating that someone had reported a hump floating on the water near the hotel. The scientists jumped up and walked to the Loch. There they saw the object and rushed to get into their boat to investigate. Twenty minutes later they returned to the shore with the body of the Loch Ness Monster.

News spread throughout the world that the body of the monster had been found. When the general curator of the Edinburgh Zoo saw the body, he realized it was no monster. He declared that the body was that of a bull elephant seal. The body was odd to be sure and looked like it had been frozen for some time. The next day John Shields came forward and admitted that he had been the one to plant the seal in the Loch Ness. He was the education officer at the Flamingo Park Zoo and thought the dead seal would be a great way to prank to colleagues who were coming to investigate Nessie.

He said that he found that seal on an expedition to the Falkland Islands. It had died after he brought to UK so he decided to use the body as a prank. But just the body of the seal wasn’t enough. He shaved off its whiskers, stuffed its cheeks with rocks and kept it on ice for over a week. He made sure to time the discovery of the body with April 1st but things got out of hand when his friends tried to take the body to London and the story got picked up by the news.