Archive Gallery: Popular Science Plays Pranks

Practical jokes from invisible ink to dangling a car off a bridge

When scientists take a break from studying, researching or inventing to devise a practical joke, the stakes are sky-high, sometimes literally. Who else can dangle a car off a bridge, or pull out a monster mask on a space station? A look into our archives finds an abundance of wild prankery.

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Of course for some, like inventor Sam Adams, pranking is serious business. He's the man who invented such classic pranking tools as palm buzzers and the dribble glass. And Mother Nature's been known to be tricky sometimes herself.

Feel free to peruse our gallery for inspiration for your next prank war; just maybe don't dangle any cars off of anything without supervision.

Enabling, November 1917
Rambunctious readers in 1917 could find a hearty supply of pranking necessities from this ad in the back of the magazine. Jokesters could purchase invisible ink ("invaluable for many reasons"), sneezing powder and stage money ("with a bunch of these bills, it is easy to appear prosperous") as well as select from a curious list of items with no descriptions, such as "Pharo's Serpents Eggs box," "Cleopatra's Snake (very lifelike)" and "Fighting Roosters, pair." See the full ad here.
The Old Car-On-The Roof Trick, June 1926
Leading a cow up stairs is a classic prank - the idea being that they can't walk back down, so they'll just stay up there, mooing and causing a ruckus. In 1926, a group of students at MIT decided to recreate the prank with a more willing and less stinky subject: a car. Being the future engineers that they were, they hoisted a Ford onto the roof of one of MIT's dorms with block and tackle, leaving it carefully balanced over the edge of the building. Read the full story in Young Engineers Modernize an Old Student Prank
Fake Fossils, November 1933
What with all the horrible things humans have been doing to the Earth, Mother Nature's got to get her jollies in where she can. She created several kinds of rock formations that strongly resemble fossilized plants and animals. The Smithsonian has an entire collection of these fake fossils, sent in by amateur archaeologists thrown into a frenzy over nothing. For example, the "fossilized heart" pictured at left is really just mud shaped by a clam shell. And what appears to be remnants of an ancient fern is actually a pattern formed by iron-heavy water seeping into rock. Read the full story in Nature Deceives Scientists With Strange Fake Fossils.
The King of Practical Jokes, January 1955
In 1955, we profiled inventor Sam Adams, a man who enjoys a good joke at someone else's expense. The palm buzzer? He invented that. The dribble glass? Snakes in a can? Those too. However, he's sure to point out that a prank is only funny as long as it doesn't go too far. The ideal practical joke, he told our reporter in 1955, "does not generate the urge toward mayhem or murder against the joker, who is my customer, and who, consequently, I do not wish to see murdered." We took a look at some of Adams' greatest creations, including some that sound a little too dangerous to fit into that ethos, like the exploding book. Read the full story in Fun's Henry Ford Is Still Inventing.
Gus the Mechanic Outfoxes Some Practical Jokesters, April 1959
PopScis of old apparently enjoyed teaching the reader about the inner workings of automobiles through humorous, Encyclopedia Brown-esque anecdotes. In this tale, our hero, Gus, who prefers staying in and tackling tough engine jobs to going out fishing with the boys, has a run-in with a couple of hooligans from the neighborhood. If he's such a good mechanic, they taunt him, maybe he can figure out what's wrong with their car. Some green whippersnapper mechanic from a startup garage tries to help find the problem with some newfangled technology, but our hero doesn't need all that. He quickly determines that the hooligans are pranking him for April Fools' Day. They've switched two of the spark plug wires--"the oldest automotive practical joke in the book," Gus says, and charges them eight whole dollars to teach them a lesson. Read the full story in Gus Challenges an Electronic Marvel.
Space Station Shenanigans, August 1994
Jean-Loup Chretien was anything but a mild-mannered guest aboard Russian space stations Salyut 7 and Mir. But it would seem the Soviets enjoyed his joie de vivre, because Chretien was the only guest cosmonaut to be invited onto both space stations. He was known for wacky antics like serving French cuisine as a waiter, and playing a hand-cranked organ to provide ambiance. Chretien also brought a monster mask aboard Salyut 7 and popped out from behind a panel, scaring the stardust out of cosmonaut Anatoly Berezovy. Read the full story in Strange Crew.
Computer-Generated Research Papers, July 2005
MIT might as well be called the Massachusetts Institute of Pranks. In 2005, three computer science PhD students at MIT noticed that they were getting a lot of bogus-seeming emails asking them to submit research papers for publication, for the low, low fee of $390. They suspected that the academic standards for submissions would be somewhat lax, to say the least. So, they developed a software program that would generate nonsensical research papers for them to submit. The students fed the program scientific-sounding sentences with the nouns, verbs and adjectives removed and the program filled in the blanks with random science terms from a database. This led to papers that said things like "A theoretical grand challenge in theory is the important unification of virtual machines and real-time theory." The World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics initially accepted a paper from the students titled "Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy," but after the conference caught wind of the joke, they rejected the paper and issued the students a refund. Read the full story in Nerdy Mad Libs Fool the Experts
Go Big or Go Home, September 2008
If there's one thing we've learned during this archive gallery, it's that scientists make the best pranksters. Any Joe Schmo can dangle a dollar on some fishing line out a window, but how many people can dangle a car off a bridge? The University of British Columbia engineering students are known for hanging Volkswagen Beetles off of things, in this case, the Lions Gate Bridge. The car has a giant "E" painted on it, for "engineers." Our intrepid reporter accompanied the students as they executed the prank. We can only hope that getting their stunt published in PopSci helped a few of the students earn their "Black E patches," awarded to UBC engineers when one of their pranks gets widespread media attention. Read the full story in Extreme Engineering 101.