Google-Topeka Trick Joins Historic April Fools' Hoaxes

April Fools' hoax-busting: Why Google changed its name to Topeka, and more.

So why's Google suddenly Topeka? Hang on, let me Topeka that for you ... So, it turns out it's an elaborate April Fools' Day hoax—and hardly the first corporate prank to tickle the masses on April 1.

The presumably temporary Google-to-Topeka name change mirrors Topeka's unofficial adoption of "Google" as its new name, at least for the month of March. The Kansas city's switcheroo was a cry for attention intended for Google Topeka executives auditioning U.S. cities in which to test a fiber-optic broadband network.

Writing on Google's Topeka's official blog on April Fools' Day, chair and chief executive officer Eric Schmidt noted potential confusion—yes, the Topeka Maps site will cover more than just the Kansas capital—and assured other competitors for the broadband experiment that the Google-to-Topeka name change "will have no bearing on which municipalities are chosen to participate."

Other Google April Fools' Day 2010 hoaxes include announcements of a new Google Wave feature that sends a man in a lab coat to physically wave at you when you have a new notification, text-only mode for Google's YouTube site, and the ability to upload keys and other 3-D objects to Google Docs.

While it may be eye-opening (or inspire eye rolling) in its scope, Google's April Fools' Day Topeka trick is only the latest big-time bamboozle perpetrated by fast food barons, straight-faced documentarians, pseudo-scientists, and other merry pranksters.

(Also see our photo gallery on four historic science hoaxes.)


Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide!

City officials in Aliso Viejo, California, were so concerned about the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide that they scheduled a vote in March 2003 on whether to ban foam cups from city-sponsored events after they learned the chemical was used in foam-cup production.

Officials called off the vote after learning that dihydrogen monoxide is the scientific term for water.

"It's embarrassing," city manager David J. Norman told the Associated Press. "We had a paralegal who did bad research."

The researcher had fallen victim to an official-looking Web site touting the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide. A joke email originally authored in 1990 by Eric Lechner, then a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, claimed that dihydrogen monoxide "is used as an industrial solvent and coolant, and is used in the production of Styrofoam."

Other dangers pranksters associated with the chemical included accelerated corrosion and rusting, severe burns, and death from inhalation.

Versions of the email continue to circulate, and several Web sites, including that of the Coalition to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide, warn, tongue-in-cheek, of water's dangers.

(Related: "Salt Water Can 'Burn,' Scientist Confirms")

No Drunk Web Surfing

In 1994 columnist John Dvorak penned an article for PC Computing magazine about a bill working its way through Congress that would make it illegal to surf the information superhighway while drunk or to discuss sexual matters over a public network.

Explaining the origin of the phony bill, SB 040194 (i.e., April 1, 1994), Dvorak wrote, "Congress apparently thinks being drunk on a highway is bad no matter what kind of highway it is."

The bill was making its way through Congress unopposed, according to Dvorak, who quoted one anonymous Congressman as saying, "Who wants to come out and support drunkenness and computer sex?"

Dvorak urged his readers to send their comments to Lirpa Sloof. Apparently, some people missed the giveaway ("Lirpa Sloof" is "April Fools" spelled backward). A number of readers called Senator Edward Kennedy, who released an official statement denying that he was a sponsor of the bill.

Alabama Changes Value of Pi

The April 1998 newsletter put out by New Mexicans for Science and Reason contains an article titled "Alabama Legislature Lays Siege to Pi."

The April Fools' Day article was penned by April Holiday of the Associmated (sic) Press and told the story of how the Alabama state legislature voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the round number of 3.

The ersatz news story was written by Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist Mark Boslough to parody legislative and school board attacks on the teaching of evolution in New Mexico.

At Boslough's suggestion, Dave Thomas, the president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, posted the article in its entirety to the Internet newsgroup on April Fools 'Day. (The newsgroup hosts a lively debate on creationism vs. evolution.)

Later that evening Thomas posted a full confession to the hoax, putting all the rumors to bed, he assumed.

But to Thomas's surprise, several newsgroup readers forwarded the article to friends and posted it on other newsgroups.

When Thomas checked in on the story a few weeks later, he was surprised to learn that it had spread like wildfire. The telltale signs of the article's satirical intent, such as the April 1 date and misspelled "Associmated Press" dateline, had been replaced or deleted.

Alabama legislators were bombarded with calls protesting the law. The legislators explained that the news was a hoax. There was not and never had been such a law.


April Fools' Day Feast: Fresh-Picked Spaghetti

Alex Boese, curator of the online Museum of Hoaxes, said one of his favorite hoaxes remains the one perpetrated by the BBC on April Fools' Day 1957.

The BBC aired a report on the television news show Panorama about the bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland.

Video: BBC's April Fools' Day 1957 Hoax

Viewers watched Swiss farmers pull pasta off spaghetti trees as the show's anchor, Richard Dimbleby, attributed the bountiful harvest to the mild winter and the disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.

The broadcaster detailed the ins and outs of the life of the spaghetti farmer and anticipated questions about how spaghetti grows on trees.

Thousands of people believed the report and called the BBC to inquire about growing their own spaghetti trees, to which the BBC replied, "Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."

"British society really was like that at that time," Boese said. "The British have a tendency to be a bit insulated and do not know that much about the rest of Europe."

Taco Liberty Bell

On April Fools' Day in 1996 readers in five major U.S. cities opened their newspapers to learn from a full-page ad that the Taco Bell Corporation had purchased the Liberty Bell from the U.S. government.

The company was apparently relocating the historic bell from Philadelphia to Irvine, California. The move, the corporation said in the advertisement, was part of an "effort to help the national debt."

Hundreds of other newspapers and television shows ran stories related to a press release on the matter put out by PainePR, a public relations firm working for Taco Bell.

Outraged citizens called the Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia to express their disgust. A few hours later the public relations firm released another press announcement stating that the stunt was a hoax.

Then White House press secretary Mike McCurry got into the act when he remarked that the government would also be "selling the Lincoln Memorial to Ford Motor Company and renaming it the Lincoln-Mercury Memorial."

As a marketing ploy, the hoax was successful, PainePR said on their Web site. The firm said more than 70 million Americans had been exposed to the story, which resulted in a U.S. $500,000 sales increase for Taco Bell on April Fools' Day, and a $600,000 increase on April 2.


Every day's April Fool's Day for some silly—some might say "sinister"—souls, perhaps including the perpetrators of some of the biggest scientific hoaxes (and supposed hoaxes) in history.

Crop Circles

Strange, circular formations began to appear in the fields of southern England in the mid-1970s, bringing busloads of curious onlookers, media representatives, and believers in the paranormal out to the countryside for a look (crop circle pictures).

A sometimes vitriolic debate on their origins has since ensued, and the curious formations have spread around the world, becoming more and more elaborate as the years go by.

Some people consider the crop formations to be the greatest works of modern art to emerge from the 20th century. Others are convinced the circles signs of extraterrestrial communications or landing sites of UFOs. (See "Crop Circles: Artworks or Alien Signs?")

The debate rages even today, although in 1991 Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, two elderly men from Wiltshire County, came forward and claimed responsibility for the crop circles that appeared there over the preceding 20 years. The pair had made the circles by pushing down nearly ripe crops with a wooden plank suspended from a rope.

(Find out how Google made crop circles go worldwide overnight in September 2009.)

Piltdown Man

In December 1912 a 500,000-year-old skull that reportedly represented the missing link between modern humans and their prehistoric ancestors went on display at the British Museum in London.

The specimen was said to have been recovered in Piltdown, England, by an amateur fossil collector named Charles Dawson and put on display by Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the Department of Geology at the museum.

The skull caused a stir among scientists, who felt that the lower jaw belonged to a different species, perhaps an ape. Eventually, however, the so-called Piltdown Man's boosters won out, and the skull was given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawson and recorded in the textbooks.

Over the next several years Dawson recovered other bones from the Piltdown site, and they were added to the collection.

It wasn't until 1953, 37 years after Dawson had died, that British Museum researchers Kenneth Oakley, Wilfred Le Gros Clark, and Joseph Weiner published a paper in which they announced that the fossil was a fake. They concluded that Piltdown Man was a combination of human cranial pieces and the jawbone of an orangutan, which had been stained to make it look old.

Moon Landing a Hoax?

Ever since NASA sent astronauts to the moon between 1969 and 1972, skeptics have questioned whether the Apollo missions were real or simply a ploy to one-up the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The debate resurfaced and reached crescendo levels in February 2001, when the Fox television network aired a program called Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?

Guests on the show argued that NASA hadn't had the technology to land on the moon. Anxious to win the space race, NASA had acted out the Apollo program in movie studios, they said.

The conspiracy theorists pointed out that the pictures that had been transmitted from the moon do not include stars and that the flag the Americans had supposedly planted on the moon is shown waving, even though there is no breeze on the moon.

NASA quickly refuted these claims in a series of press releases, stating that any photographer would know it's difficult to capture something very bright and very dim on the same piece of film. Since the photographers had wanted to capture the astronauts striding across the lunar surface in their sunlit space suits, the background stars were rendered too faint to see.

As for the flag, NASA said that the astronauts had been turning it back and forth to get the banner firmly planted in the lunar soil, which made it wave.

(Pictures: Eight Moon-Landing Hoax Myths—Busted.)

The issue may have been put to rest when NASA pointed out that the show hadn't questioned the more than 800 pounds (363 kilograms) of rocks brought back from the moon.

"Geologists worldwide have been examining these samples for 30 years, and the conclusion is inescapable. The rocks could not have been collected or manufactured on Earth," NASA states on its Web site. Regardless, the conspiracy theory remains today.

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