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A digitally edited photo showing the Elizabeth clock tower with a digital clock-face

7 incredible April Fool’s Day pranks from history

Here are seven rather elaborate pranks that have well and truly gone down in the historical hall of fame.

Image: In 1980, BBC World Service announced that 'Big Ben' would be renamed 'Digital Dave' |

Playing a light-hearted joke on our friends and family on 1st April is one thing. But here are seven rather more elaborate pranks that have well and truly gone down in the historical hall of fame.

1. The great spaghetti harvest

In 1957, the BBC pulled off what still ranks as one of the most famous April Fool’s Day gags of all time. Eight million people tuned in to watch Panorama’s three-minute feature on the ‘Swiss spaghetti harvest’.

After an unseasonably warm winter brought an end to their dreadful spaghetti weevil pest control issue, the region of Ticino near the Italian border was said to have yielded an ‘exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop’. The footage showed people picking strands of spaghetti off trees and bushes before tucking into their home-grown feast.

The prank occurred long before pasta became a staple in the average British diet, making the audience ripe for the picking. When viewers phoned in to find out how they could purchase their own spaghetti trees, the BBC told them to ‘place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best’.

2. The washing of the lions

It was in 1698 that people were first tricked into attending the ‘washing of the lions’ at the Tower of London. That makes it one of the oldest-known pranks in the historical record, and it would be repeated multiple times during the 18th and 19th centuries.

One iteration occurred in 1848 when a journalist distributed cards inviting the public to the washing of the lions. As an onlooker wrote: ‘I was not prepared for the extraordinary credulity of the British Public. They flocked up in shoals to see the lions washed. The warders were almost at their wits’ end. They had the bits of pasteboard flourished in their faces, with angry gestures and angrier imprecations, by the indignant crowd of sight-seers and seekers.’

3. Big Ben goes digital

In 1980, the BBC World Service announced that London’s most famous landmark was getting a facelift. The broadcaster told listeners that, to help tourists tell the time, the Big Ben clocktower would be going digital, and would henceforth be known as ‘Digital Dave’.

The new and improved monument wouldn’t just tell the time – it would also issue a five-minute news bulletin every night. On top of that, the iconic bongs would be replaced with beeps. While some listeners clocked that this was an April Fool’s jest, many others rang in to express their outrage. A BBC spokesperson commented: ‘Surprisingly, few people thought it was funny.'

4. The incredible colour television hack

In 1962, years before colour television was rolled out in Sweden, viewers of Sveriges Television were tricked into believing they could transform their black and white screens with an easy DIY hack.

Kjell Stensson, a ‘technical expert’, went into intricate detail on how stretching a mesh sheet over their screens could bend the light’s wavelengths, allowing viewers to see in full technicolour. Luckily, this could be easily achieved with an item found in many homes: nylon stockings. As it was the only TV network in Sweden at the time, enjoying the trust of the population, thousands of people fell for it.

5. The Jovian-Plutonian effect

Renowned astronomer and beloved presenter of The Sky at Night, Patrick Moore, had the credibility and stern air of authority which allowed him to pull off a prank that was out of this world. In 1976, Moore told radio listeners that, due to a rare planetary alignment of Pluto and Jupiter, the Earth would experience a shift in its gravitational forces that morning, allowing them to float into the air.

At precisely 9:47am, Moore instructed the listeners to ‘Jump now!’. Within minutes, calls were coming in reporting that they had felt the impact of the Jovian-Plutonian effect. One caller claimed that she and her eleven friends had ‘orbited gently around the room’. Another complained that he had risen so high that he hit his head on the ceiling and demanded compensation.

6. Edison’s miraculous machine

In the year following his invention of the phonograph in 1877, the New York Graphic jumped on the opportunity to trick their readers into thinking Thomas Edison had created a new machine capable of turning dirt into meat and water into wine.

‘Edison invents a machine that will feed the human race!’ ran the sensational headline. It was, of course, a total fabrication. The writer even admitted this at the end of the article, concluding that he woke up and it was all a dream. This didn’t stop several American newspapers from reprinting the story believing it to be true. In their next edition, the Graphic condemned the ‘hasty reading’ by their gullible audience under the tongue-in-cheek caption: ‘They Bite’.

7. The volcanic eruption that wasn’t

One of the most audacious pranks of all time was the fake eruption of the Mount Edgecumbe volcano in Alaska. It was carried out not by a media outlet, but by a local logger named Oliver ‘Porky’ Bickar and was a hoax years in the making. Bickar diligently collected 70 tyres which he stashed away in an airplane hangar, waiting for an April Fool’s Day with clear enough skies and the right weather conditions to pull off his plan.

That day came in 1974 when Bickar used a chartered helicopter to deposit the tyres into the volcano’s crater. He then doused them with fuel and set them alight, causing a satisfyingly thick and ominous plume of smoke to billow up.

Local townsfolk rushed into the streets, fearful that the long-dormant volcano was going to blow. While the police and fire service were in on the joke, Bickar had forgotten to inform the Coast Guard. They flew over to inspect the situation, but instead of seeing molten lava, they saw the old tires ablaze, surrounded by giant spray-painted letters reading ‘APRIL FOOL’.