hoax

Piltdown hoax

Forgery of human fossil remains that impeded early 20th-century progress in the study of human evolution. The apparently fossilized skull found at Piltdown Common near Lewes, Eng., was first proposed as a new species of prehistoric man (“Piltdown man”) in 1912. Only in 1954 was the skull shown to consist of a human cranium skillfully joined to the jaw of an orangutan. The hoax may have been perpetrated by the skull's discoverer, Charles Dawson, though evidence discovered in the 1970s suggests a British Museum staff member, Martin A.C. Hinton.

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"The Balloon-Hoax" is the title now used for a newspaper article written by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1844. Originally presented as a true story, it detailed European Monck Mason's trip across the Atlantic Ocean in only three days in a hot air balloon. It was later revealed as a hoax and the story was retracted two days later.

Overview

The story now known as "The Balloon-Hoax" was first printed in The Sun newspaper in New York. It ran with the headline:

ASTOUNDING NEWS!
BY EXPRESS VIA NORFOLK:

THE ATLANTIC CROSSED
IN THREE DAYS!

SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF
MR. MONCK MASON'S
FLYING MACHINE!!!

The article went on to provide a detailed and highly plausible account of a lighter-than-air balloon trip by famous European balloonist Monck Mason across the Atlantic Ocean taking 75 hours, along with a diagram and specifications of the craft.

Poe may have been inspired, at least in part, by a prior journalistic hoax known as the "Great Moon Hoax," published in the same newspaper in 1835. One of the suspected writers of that hoax, Richard Adams Locke, was Poe's editor at the time "The Balloon-Hoax" was published.

Publication history

The story was first published on April 13, 1844 in the New York Sun. A retraction concerning the article was printed in The Sun on April 15, 1844:

BALLOON - The mails from the South last Saturday night not having brought a confirmation of the arrival of the Balloon from England, the particulars of which from our correspondent we detailed in our Extra, we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous. The description of the Balloon and the voyage was written with a minuteness and scientific ability calculated to obtain credit everywhere, and was read with great pleasure and satisfaction. We by no means think such a project impossible.

The author of this retraction has not been determined and was rumored to be Poe himself.

Critical reception and significance

Poe himself describes the enthusiasm his story had aroused: he claims that the Sun building was "besieged" by people wanting copies of the newspaper. "I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper," he wrote. The story's impact reflects on the period's infatuation with progress. Poe added realistic elements, discussing at length the balloon's design and propulsion system in believable detail. His use of real people, including William Harrison Ainsworth, also lent credence to the story. The character of Monck Mason was not a real person, though he was based heavily on Thomas Monck Mason; the story borrowed heavily from Mason's 1836 book Account of the Late Aeronautical Expedition from London to Weilburg.

"The Balloon-Hoax" is like one of Poe's "tales of ratiocination" (such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue") in reverse: rather than taking things apart to solve a problem, Poe builds up fiction to make it seem true. The story is also an early form of science fiction, specifically responding to the emerging technology of hot air balloons.

The story may have later been an inspiration for Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days.

Real trans-oceanic lighter-than-air flights

The first human-carrying lighter-than-air craft of any type to cross the Atlantic was the British dirigible R-34, a direct copy of the German L-33 which crashed in Britain during World War I, in 1919. The 3559.5 mile flight from Britain to New York City took 108 hours 12 minutes.

The first human-carrying unpowered balloon to actually cross the Atlantic Ocean was Double Eagle II from August 11 to 17, 1978. The Pacific was crossed in three days by unmanned Japanese "fire balloons" in 1944, exactly 100 years after Poe's story.

References

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