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15-Year-Old Uncovers Major Wikipedia Toaster Hoax That Fooled The Media For Years

"The absurdity of the photo was just part of the joke."

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockNov 22 2022, 15:29 UTC
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The Wikipedia homepage.
It's mostly useful, but sometimes Wikipedia can get it very wrong indeed. Image credit: Photo Oz/Shutterstock.com

A 15-year-old has uncovered a major Wikipedia toaster hoax that for years had fooled visitors and the media alike. The boy, named only Adam by the BBC, first became suspicious of the hoax while browsing Wikipedia while bored in class.

During one of his classes, his teacher mentioned a Scottish scientist who invented the electric toaster in the late 1800s. However, when Adam looked at the page for Alan MacMasters, also credited with inventing the electric kettle by the website, he noticed something odd about the photo of MacMasters, supposedly taken in the 1890s.

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"It didn't look like a normal photo," Adam told the BBC. "It looked like it was edited."

Apart from that, at first glance the article looked pretty much like any other article, complete with plenty of references. The article claims that while MacMasters was attempting to cut costs by using cheaper metals for filaments, using large amounts of nickel in the wire, "the resultant lamp ran so hot that his nearby bread began to brown". 

Supposedly, MacMasters then spent several months at a colleague's laboratory perfecting the design, before selling it to be produced. 

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"MacMasters's toaster was brought to mass market as the 'Eclipse'. It had four electric elements built on a ceramic base. Electricity could be sourced via an adapter that plugged in between a lamp and socket," the entry continued. 

"Unfortunately, by 1894, the MacMasters Eclipse toaster had become the cause of one of Britain's first deadly appliance fires. A woman in Guildford was overcome in her kitchen after the early elements melted and ignited the table. MacMasters and Crompton [his colleague, R.E.B Crompton] denied wrongdoing and instead blamed the deceased for 'not holding appropriate respect for the power of the electric toaster' in reference to the fact it had been left unattended."

Incredibly, most of these claims about "MacMasters" (spoiler alert; there was no such scientist) were sourced to publications that Wikipedia deemed acceptable, and not questioned for years by any of Wikipedia's (usually diligent) editors. One article in The Scotsman, titled "Scottish fact of the week: The electric toaster" repeats many of the claims, and is referenced in the article. The Mirror, again referenced in the article, put MacMasters' toaster in a list of "life-changing everyday innovations which put British genius on the map", which isn't bad for someone who doesn't exist.

Adam posted about the suspicious page on a site dedicated to Wikipedia vandalism, the act of deliberately posting false information to the site. Investigations found that the citations were completely circular, with no underlying fact to them. Articles in the media took information from the Wikipedia page, and then those articles were used to back up the claims made on the Wikipedia page. Eventually, the site Wikipediocracy tracked down the creator of the article and hoax; a student who was bored.

"It was 6 February 2011. There were 5 or 6 of us together in a first-year dynamics lecture, friends who’d all met through the Aerospace Engineering course at the University of Surrey. The lecturer gave the usual warning about using Wikipedia, but he added an anecdote that his friend had set themselves as the inventor of the toaster," the anonymous prankster told Wikipediocracy.

"This piqued our curiosity and we started searching to see if we could find it. Indeed, the invention of the toaster had been attributed to someone named 'Maddy Kennedy.' I jokingly changed it to my mate’s name instead."

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Checking in on the hoax sometime later, he was surprised to see that it was still there, and that the information had made its way into articles elsewhere. He and his friends then uploaded a photograph of himself, badly photoshopped to look like it was from the 1890s. 

"A couple of my friends protested that the photo looked too fake and felt that it would be taken down immediately," he said. "But the absurdity of the photo was just part of the joke."

The hoax went unnoticed from February 2013 to July 2022, and MacMasters was even nominated to appear on the £50 note, though he was thankfully beaten by Alan Turing, who as well as achieving much more for humanity, was real. The hoax page itself was eventually finally taken down in July this year, though that might not be enough to stop the references from coming.

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"I’m a bit baffled that it took over 10 years for anyone to challenge it," the anonymous prankster added. "I suspect Alan MacMasters will continue to propagate itself for years to come. It’s the nature of misinformation on the internet."


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