1400s Thomas Betson, the prankster-monk, pulls off one of the earliest documented practical jokes when he hides a beetle inside a hollowed-out apple and fools his fellow monks into believing that the mysteriously rocking apple is possessed.
1835 The Great Moon Hoax is the first big media trick. The New York Sun prints an article claiming that astronomers have discovered life on the moon. More articles appear over the next few weeks, and the country is gripped by moon fever.
1938 Orson Welles's radio broadcast of War of the Worlds convinces millions of listeners that earth is under attack by aliens. Many flee their homes, pray in houses of worship, and, eventually, curse Welles's name.
1959 Prankster extraordinaire Alan Abel dreams up a campaign calling for animals to wear clothing, and the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals is born. Spokesperson G. Clifford Prout appears on Today to promote the group's catchy slogan: "A nude horse is a rude horse." Eventually, 50,000 concerned citizens sign its petition, and even Walter Cronkite gets hoodwinked—until it's discovered that Prout is actually comedian Buck Henry.
1962 Dick Tuck, the grandfather of political high jinks, arranges for an adoring crowd, holding signs in Chinese, to greet gubernatorial candidate Richard Nixon in Los Angeles's Chinatown. Halfway through his speech, Nixon is informed that the signs read "What about the huge loan"—a reference to a controversial loan Howard Hughes had made to Nixon's brother.
1962 The broadcasting technician for Sweden's lone television station appears on the news to announce that, thanks to a new technology, viewers can convert the existing black-and-white broadcasts into color. All they have to do is pull a nylon stocking over their TV screen. Thousands try it.
1985Sports Illustrated runs a story about Sidd Finch, a Mets rookie pitcher with odd training methods who can throw a baseball 168 mph with pinpoint accuracy, even though he's never played the game before. Instead, he mastered the "art of the pitch" in the mountains of Tibet. In reality, Finch exists only in the mind of the author George Plimpton.
1996 Taco Bell announces it has bought the Liberty Bell and is renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Outraged citizens complain to the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, where the bell is housed.
1997 The chemical compound DHMO is "colorless, odorless, and kills thousands of people every year" through "accidental inhalation," reads a widely circulated e-mail, calling for a ban. Furthermore, it's now "a major component of acid rain" and is "found in almost every stream, lake, and reservoir in America." One California town becomes so alarmed that residents debate banning foam cups, which are shown to contain DHMO. They nix the idea upon learning that DHMO is actually water.
1998 Burger King introduces a new item to its menu: the Left-Handed Whopper, specially designed for southpaws. According to the company, the new Whopper includes the same ingredients as the original version, but all the condiments are rotated 180 degrees.
2004 On the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal, India, chemical plant disaster that killed thousands, Jude Finisterra, a representative from Dow, tells a BBC audience that the company finally accepts full responsibility for the tragedy and plans to compensate victims to the tune of $12 billion. Only after Dow's stock plummets does the BBC or anyone else realize that Finisterra is not connected with Dow, but with the Yes Men, a political prankster group.
2004 At the annual Yale-Harvard football game, Yale students, dressed as the Harvard pep squad, distribute placards to their rival's fans. On cue, the Harvard faithful lift them up and unwittingly spell "We Suck.
2007 Google introduces TiSP (Toilet Internet Service Provider), which supplies free broadband via the sewer system. A user flushes one end of a fiber-optic cable down his toilet; an hour later, it's recovered and connected to the Internet by a team of Plumbing Hardware Dispatchers. Chat rooms are filled with interested parties asking, "Can this be true?"
2008 Days before the U.S. presidential election, a Canadian disc jockey is able to reach vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin by phone and convince her that he is French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Palin fails to pick up on any of the hints that the conversation is a joke, even when he says, with an exaggerated, Pepé Le Pew–style accent, "From my 'ouse, I can see Belgium."