Don’t Believe Everything You Read: The Great Electric Toaster Hoax

We’ve all looked up things on Wikipedia and, generally, it is usually correct information. However, the fact that anyone can edit it leads to abuse and makes it somewhat unreliable. Case in point? The BBC’s [Marco Silva] has the story of the great online toaster hoax which erroneously identified the inventor of the toaster with great impact.

You should read the original story, but in case you want a synopsis, here goes: Until recently, the Wikipedia entry for toasters stated that a Scottish man named Alan MacMasters invented the electric toaster in the 1800s. Sounds plausible. Even more so because several books had picked it up along with the Scottish government’s Brand Scottland website. At least one school had a day memorializing the inventor and a TV show also honored him with a special dessert named for Alan MacMasters, the supposed inventor.

And then if you looked up “Alan MacMasters”, you’d be lead to a page with his biography. The only problem is, he’s just a 30-year-old engineer who currently lives in London. We aren’t even sure if he owns a toaster.

It started in 2012 when a university lecturer warned about using Wikipedia as a source. He told the class that a friend of his had put his own name in as the inventor of the toaster. So the real Alan MacMasters and his friends decided they should correct it but then on a lark, decided to replace it with Alan’s name instead. The prank was forgotten until later when the Daily Mirror listed MacMaster’s toaster invention. Alan then decided to create an entire article about “himself” in 2013. It included a poorly photoshopped picture of himself — the rip hiding his modern clothes. For a decade, the story spread along with some embellishments. It was apparently a bit of a meme.

Last year, a schoolboy from Kent noticed the picture looked fake and raised it in a Reddit group that discusses Wikipedia. A bit of investigation had the article deleted.

Lesson Learned

There’s an old science demonstration where you have people guess how many gumballs are in a jar. Individual guesses are usually off, sometimes wildly. But, somehow, the average will be eerily correct. But that assumes you have a big enough sample size to average.

Perhaps the takeaway, then, is that while Wikipedia isn’t always totally accurate, it is more likely to be accurate on things that get a lot of attention either because people are interested or there is a controversy. After all, when people noticed the Alan McMaster article, it did get resolved, and within 24 hours. But for a long time, no one was really looking at it.

If you get the start date of World War II or the age of a world leader, it is probably correct because people are paying attention. But the more obscure the information, the more probability that it hasn’t been looked over by enough people to be certain. The same probably applies to websites in general. While no one is perfect, you do tend to weigh information from known credible sources over information from some unknown quantity.

And Who Was It?

D12 Toaster photo by Eric Norcross

I’ve pointed out before that while everyone knows Ameilia Earheart, she didn’t actually make it around the globe. Who did? Jerrie Mach was the first woman to fly solo around the world in 1964. So who did invent the toaster? Toaster experts say it was American Frank Shailor who filed the patent in 1909 on behalf of General Electric. Not that it was anything we would recognize as a toaster.

One of the best parts of being alive today is that we live in a world where the information equivalent of thousands of libraries is accessible from our living rooms. The responsibility that comes with that is that we have to be critical consumers of information. Crowdsourcing might not be bad, but you have to be aware of how big the crowd is and who it consists of before you can assign validity to anything you read.

We think of false stories as being a modern thing, but not so! If you make your hoax have at least some believable element, it will go even further, although that’s hardly a requirement.

63 thoughts on “Don’t Believe Everything You Read: The Great Electric Toaster Hoax

  1. Yep. Just have a look at Tumblr’s latest (and probably greatest to date) mass collaboration (or maybe hallucination?) on the 1973 film Goncharov.

    (no, it’s not a real film, but there’s been enough work put into it that makes it look pretty damn real.)

  2. Interestingly enough, the toaster that we have designed today is far from a good design. It doesn’t toast until the toast is ready, it doesn’t differentiate sides of the toast to toast them the same on both sides,it doesn’t evenly toast the toast. All these things ought to be pretty easy to do with either moisture sensors or cameras, but they don’t. Then when the toast is ready, it isn’t easy to get out without burning your fingers. The bread exits vertically, meaning more room over the toaster is necessary, making it hard to put under a cabinet.
    So this is a challenge: Invent a better toaster.

  3. It can be a lot easier to be fooled by a hoax when it’s apparently about something totally inconsequential, benign, an uncontentious (especially to a non-expert), we may approach the issue with our guard down and fail to apply enough skepticism. Another great example is TIGHAR, at first glance they may have made a good case that Amelia Earhart crashed on Nikumaroro island, and at one point if you’d asked me I would’ve told you they’d solved the case. However if you look into the details it’s a completely implausible theory that she could’ve been flying anywhere near there. They only do it for public attention and donations to the organization.

  4. A few thoughts about “reference” sources:

    Due dilligence requires that you always rely on more than one info source. This is not a weakness of Wikipedia as such, this has always been the case.

    To be clear, I am not talking about informational “consensus.” Things are not necessarily true or false simply because a majority advocates the idea. Multiple sources work more like error detection wirh parity bits.

    What IS a weakness of Wikipedia– and any modern electronic “knowledge” base–is its volatility and inherently eathereal nature. Unlike a reference BOOK, which in production would minimally have passed through the hands of hundreds of persons who might notice errors… and is unchanging once produced… electronic references can be radically changed with a keystroke.

    When such changes occur accidentally, the best case is that it’s funny. But if it’s done purposefully–with an agenda–the potential for manipulation of public sentiment is frightening. I can probably think of a half-dozen examples of the latter off the top of my head.

    1. Another problem with Wikipedia is that it is used by other writers as a source, which are subsequently cited as sources by the Wikipedia article. There are several known cases (in one case it was about the spelling of someone’s name, I don’t recall what the others were about), and possibly many more cases that are so far undetected.

        1. That is really “continuous path NC”, with NC standing for “Numerical Control”.
          “CNC” has, since its inception, always stood for “Computer Numerical Control”
          If you’re trying to be pedantic, at least be correct.

    2. Unlike a book, Wikipedia also includes all the previous versions and a tool to make word-by-word comparisons as well as a place to collect discussion about the article and a history of all those as well.

    3. Good call. Open sourcing history may become a good thing in the long run if the people finally learn to double-check everything and that could be a turning point for humanity in general. It might hopefully even become an incentive to do so. The kids should be taught NOT to believe without proof which is not what they are (or have been) taught and a big reason as to why we are where we are now.

    4. “What IS a weakness of Wikipedia”

      Is its user created coverage of any subject that has any conceivable political component whatsoever. Only on hard science subjects do I find it of value.

  5. So, Captain Mike Yeats did not invent the electric toaster, shocking?

    Next thing you know, “as above, so, below – as his grandmother taught him” Shiva married to the man known as The Nanny, did not invent e-mail.

    What is this world coming to? I guess you can not believe everything you read on the internet.

  6. Ah the good ol’ Weekeepedia. In my early 20s I’ve “improved” so many articles there, mostly about chess, control systems, public transport and less known firearms from ex-CCCP countries. Lots of that stupidity is still there after 9 years since I quit editing there.

    1. Doesn’t seem like something you should be proud of. Ignoring the wiki foundation aspect of it, this is a global volunteer project. It kind of feels like you’re boasting about emptying salt into a volunteer food banks supplies because their verification procedure is lax. This isn’t “red teaming” if you leave the disinformation in place. It’s just vandalism.

    1. Because fact and truth requires proving.
      Making up facts and fanciful stories only need another fanciful stories and fake fats to prove itself.

      They use the word “humor” to hide stupidity and uselessness.

      At least they get a chuckle knowing it has been on display on Wikipedia for so long.

    2. Wikopedia isn’t perfect, but it has advantages over the paper encyclopedias it has largely replaced. Paper encyclopedias also had omissions, errors and editorial bias, but these could not be corrected until the next printing, if at all. Decent paper encyclopedias cost a lot of money, so “normal” people wouldn’t update anyway. Sure, there might have been a copy at the library, but wikipedia is at your fingertips right now. As mentioned above, you can unroll the edit history to spot misinformation if you take the time – good luck doing that with a paper encyclopedia.

      Anecdote time – some of my students would disparage Wikipedia as a source, because “anybody can edit it,” but happily cite a Youtube video. Youtube! At least Wikipedia has a review process. I’ve actually found Wikipedia to have quite a high bar for editing, it’s not like randos on the internet can just claim that WW2 was started by kim kardashian.

  7. You know how you can see all of the revision history for a given page in Wikipedia? Does anyone know how you can see just the diffs?

    In my stupid youth, I added something completely inappropriate to a Wikipedia page just to see how long it would persist. It was removed within a couple hours, presumably by bots. But it would be fun to search for it just for nostalgia’s sake.

      1. As a teen I once went through a low traffic technical article and replaced all the periods with exclamation marks, because the rules at the time stated that minor changes in punctuation didn’t require a moderator to review.
        They were still there a decade later when i saw someone giving out about it on 4chan so i changed them back out of shame.

  8. “we live in a world where the information equivalent of thousands of libraries is accessible from our living rooms”
    maybe back around 2006 or so but currently only if they are for sale on amazon or ebay…. at least that’s what google et al tell me when i try to search for info….

  9. A while back I was trying to explain how a 3-wire RTD bridge circuit is used to compensate for lead wire resistance. The drawing in the Wikipedia entry for RTD is incorrectly drawn. I had to pull out my old OMEGA hard cover book to find the right way to wire it up.

    1. John Gall introduced the concept of the “coefficient of fiction”, which is the amount of real information that organizations of people manage to avoid as a normal function of the system they are operating. Certain systems, such as religions, can exceed a value of 1.

  10. Parts of Wikipedia appear to be systematically corrupted, basically anything discussing the health benefits of botanical secondary metabolites is skewed to give a false impression that they significantly less effective that manufactured equivalents, when a deep dive into the research uncovers a very different story in some cases. Beware the trick of deception by omission.

      1. This implies there’s a large paid maintainer force, which I believe is not actually true. I’d be interested to see the distribution of edit frequency: is it mostly a few main contributors or lots of folks like me that occasionally fix errors we see as we read

  11. I remember the story of a college professor who gave an assignment and required the use of library resources with footnotes and indepth research. What the students didn’t know was that the professor planted fake info and references in Wiki. He was not surprised to find the assignments completed quickly and were nearly word for word of his Wiki plants.

  12. Wikipedia varies greatly. I don’t think I noticed it much until someone made a pronouncement, and looking at the entry, saw that someone had based it on some later article. He lacked the view of living through it. (It was soon improved).

    A bunch of ancestors have entries. One has a wrong detail, I left a note five years ago, but nobody’s improved it. They lack by not being connected. So repetitition between entries. I like the bit about my great, great great grandfather’s hair turning white one winter among the Syilx. But I think the only kid mentioned was a daughter who married another entry.

    I’ve never edited and not sure it’s proper for me to fix family entries. On the other hand, the only things I know about my ancestors is from the internet. So Ihave no family lore.

  13. Fwiw: pretty sure GE got it from some random guy in the first electrified part of town, and in the typical way of Edison, improved it somewhat then got that patented. He did that a lot

  14. I didn’t realize people were so broadly dishonest or unethical in their edits as this comment section has revealed. Maybe my work in open source, with a higher barrier to entry and a review process, has lulled me into a sense of complacency. I’m not sure how anyone lives with themselves intentionally putting incorrect info there e.g. to prove a point to course students. Of course it’s unreliable with hacks like that putting nonsense in. Ugh.

    1. It’s because most of us are of the generation that saw the naivety and trust of the early internet as hilarious.

      It was, and still is, like a bunch of monkeys trying to operate a nuclear reactor. The best thing you can do about it is to throw a wrench in the works and trip the fuses to make it stop – before the monkeys manage to do something worse with it. If we just keep pretending that a place like Wikipedia or Twitter actually works for its intended purpose the way its managed, well…

    2. >Of course it’s unreliable with hacks like that putting nonsense in. Ugh.

      Of course, nonsense is put in regardless of these hacks. They simply admit it. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t know it is unreliable.

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