By Haddon Libby
The exact origins of April Fool’s Day are not known. Historians are fairly sure that its current form began in 1582 when the Catholic Church added leap year in order to avoid calendar drift. At the same time, New Year’s Day was moved from April 1st to January 1st. The April 1st New Year was from Greek and Roman times when the darkness (and most likely hunger) from the winter season gave way to spring and the return of warmer temperatures and the ability to grow food. The pranking and silliness part of the holiday were a way to tease and make fun of the April fools who still celebrated April 1st as New Year’s.
In Italy, France and Belgium, a prank was to clip a paper fish on the bank of a person without getting noticed.
Over the centuries, pranks and false stories in the news have become routine and injected some silliness and levity to the year.
National Public Radio has done many hoaxes throughout the years. In 1992, they announced that Richard Nixon would be running for President again with the slogan, “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.” NPR used impressionist Rich Little as the voice of the impeached president in the fake interview.
In 1957, the BBC reported that there had been an “especially heavy spaghetti crop” in Switzerland due to a mild winter and no crop loss from the spaghetti weevil. The “news” segment went as far as showing Swiss peasants pulling spaghetti from trees. Hundreds of viewers fell for the gag by trying to grow spaghetti trees. The story reported that a spaghetti tree sprouts best when a sprig of spaghetti is rooted in a can of tomato sauce.
New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter in 1998 included a satirical news story that the Alabama legislature had voted to change the value of pi from 3.14159 to the ‘Biblical value’ of 3.0. This hoax was reported as reality by other news outlets. Many found the story believable as Indiana Representative T.I. Record put forward House Bill #246 back in 1897 meant to fix pi “as it fails to work”. Mr. Record’s bill passed in the house unanimously and was referred to the Senate where it nearly became law. Fortunately, a mathematics professor from Purdue University was visiting, reviewed the bill and found six definitions of pi. After explaining the foolishness of the endeavor, the state senate dropped its support for this intellectually flawed bill.
A similar prank happened in 1878 when the New York Graphic magazine announced that Thomas Edison had created a food machine that could turn soil into food and water into wine. A Buffalo newspaper took the story to be real and published it as truth.
In 1934, the Hearst International News service reported that German pilot Erich Koycher had invented a flying device that operated on only the air of his lungs that created the suction necessary to lift his body into the air. Originally written as a spoof by Berliner Illustrite Zeitung, the Hearst News Service missed the fact that the story was a joke causing many US newspapers to publish the joke as truth. Worth noting, Koycher in German is a pun that translates to a puff or wheeze.
Advertisers have used April Fool’s Day as a fun way to generate free publicity.
In one of the funniest spoofs, Burger King took out an ad in USA Today announcing a new menu item: a “Left-Handed Whopper” that was meant to serve the needs of 32 million left-handers in the United States. This prompted thousands of people to visit the restaurant looking for the specialty burger.
Haddon Libby is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Winslow Drake Investment Management. For more information on his services, please visit www.WinslowDrake.com.