Hoax Archive: Time Periods
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18th Century Science Hoaxes
The Charlton Brimstone Butterfly, 1702 (1702 (exposed in 1793))Shortly before his death in 1702, butterfly collector William Charlton (1642-1702) sent a specimen to esteemed London entomologist James Petiver. Petiver thought it was quite remarkable. He wrote, "It exactly resembles our English Brimstone Butterfly (R. Rhamni), were it not for those black spots and apparent blue moons on the lower wings. This is the only one I have seen."
Carl Linnaeus had a chance to examine the rare butterfly in 1763 and declared it to be a new species that he named Papilio ecclipsis. He included it in the 12th edition (1767) of his Systema Naturae.
But thirty years later, in 1793, the Danish entomologist John Christian Fabricius examined it more closely and realized it was a fake. The black spots had been painted on the wings. The rare butterfly, the only one of its kind ever seen, was nothing more than a common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni).
The top and bottom specimens are fakes; the middle one is real.
When Dr. E.W. Gray, keeper of National Curiosities at the British Museum where the specimen was stored, heard of the deception, he is said to have become so enraged that he "indignantly stamped the specimen to pieces". The lepidopterist William Jones carefully created two replica specimens that are now preserved as "The Charlton Brimstones".
It is unclear whether this is an example of scientific fraud (i.e. Was Charlton hoping he would be credited with the discovery of a new species?), or if it was intended as a mere practical joke.
The Lying Stones of Dr. Beringer, 1725 (1725-1726)Dr. Johann Beringer was a professor at the University of Würzburg. In 1725 a curious set of fossils came into his possession that displayed, in sharp three-dimensional relief, images of plants, insects, birds, snails, hebrew letters, and even astronomical objects. Beringer thought he had made a remarkable discovery. However, it turned out the stones had been created by two fellow professors as a hoax. This was revealed, much to Beringer's embarrassment, after he had authored a book about the stones. Beringer sued the hoaxers in court and won a conviction against them. More→
The Electric Kite Hoax (June 1752)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 experiment. It is not known exactly when the experiment occurred. Sometime in June, 1752 was the closest Franklin ever came to an exact date. Nor did Franklin ever write a formal report about it. The only witness to the event was Franklin's son, who never said a word about it. Finally, such an experiment would have been extremely dangerous, possibly fatal, as Franklin knew.
Historian Tom Tucker suggests that Franklin originally proposed the idea for the experiment as a joke. Frustrated because the British Royal Society had been ignoring his letters to them about his earlier electrical research, he might have proposed the deadly experiment as a subtle joke. It was his way of saying, Go fly a kite in a storm! But when his suggestion reached France, where people took it seriously, Franklin decided to play along and claimed he really had conducted the experiment.
Tucker's theory remains controversial. Other historians argue that Franklin would never have risked being exposed as a liar by the scientific community.
The Patagonian Giants, 1766 (1766)In 1766, when the Dolphin returned to London after circumnavigating the globe, a rumor began to circulate alleging that the crew of the ship had discovered a race of nine-foot-tall giants living in Patagonia, South America. The rumor of South American giants had a long history, dating as far back as the 1520s. According to this rumor, the name Patagonia actually meant "land of the big feet". But in reality, there were no South American giants, and Patagonia didn't mean "land of the big feet". When the captain of the Dolphin published his official account of the voyage in 1773, he revealed that his crew had indeed encountered a tribe of Patagonians, but that the tallest among them had measured only 6 feet 6 inches. In other words, the Patagonians were tall, but they weren't giants. More→
The Great Chess Automaton, 1770 (1769 - mid-nineteenth century)Centuries before IBM built Deep Blue, its chess-playing supercomputer, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen built what he claimed was a "thinking machine" that could play chess against human opponents. Not only that, but it consistently won. More→
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