Engineering pranks, a look back: statues, closets and a car named Omar

They're infamous, entertaining and unpredictable — engineering pranks are nothing short of legend at UBC. The Volkswagen Beetle in particular has become an emblem for the high-calibre mischief that the students in red jackets can get up to.

“I think there were people pulling pranks and things like that back in the ’40s and ’50s,” said Hans Seidemann, an engineering student at UBC from 2009 to 2014.

As it turns out, he’s quite right about that. This is proved by hEUStory, a website devoted to the history of the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) and the pranks everyone attributes to them. Although Seidemann disclaims that the connection to the EUS is hypothetical and not necessarily true, 1956-57 was a good year for pranking.

That academic year, horses were rented and rode down Main Mall — at least one Arts student was “sacrificed” at the end in honour of the procession. Of course, a Volkswagen Beetle also made an appearance — lodged between two columns of an engineering building.

Much is going on behind these scenes. According to Seidemann, the amount of work depends on the scale of the prank. When deciding what to do, the entertainment value has to be mixed with the right amount of practicality.

Some might be surprised to know that there are certain things that even engineers can't pull off. Executing a prank isn't always as clean as it looks by a perfectly positioned car at a high altitude.

“The one on the clock tower was three years in the making — a year of planning, a failure and then another year to re-do,” said Bill Richardson, engineering student at UBC in the early ’80s, who also noted that his knowledge is simply hypothetical and the EUS can't be considered responsible for the incidences.

Richardson said that the famous car-on-the-clock-tower prank actually failed the first time it was attempted. The pranksters eventually succeeded by taking it apart, hoisting everything up and reassembling it all once in place.

Richardson has sorted engineering pranks into three categories — the car on top of the clock tower is category one. Number two is leaving something that can’t be removed. Then, his personal favourite is called “switch and bait. That is where something appears to be very wrong, but it isn’t.”

A good example of the latter is the “statue stunt.” Engineers built a number of ugly statues which were then left around campus. Once everyone had a chance to notice the additions, a letter writing campaign began, asking that the statues be removed. The arts community on campus was horrified and equally so when they found out the engineers had then gone ahead and destroyed them anyway.

“There were instances of people being kicked out of carpools and being refused taxi rides because they were wearing an engineering jacket,” said Richardson. “The engineers were basically personas non grata.”

Some pranks are discovered to be executable, but others never quite come to fruition. Seidemann said it’s just a process of figuring out the limitations once work has begun on a project. Some of the ideas that were thrown out remain just as entertaining in the realm of possibility.

“I’m reasonably confident to say it’s never gonna happen now, but before drones were really a thing, people had an idea to ... remotely control a blimp and then deposit a bug shell somewhere after elevation,” said Seidemann.

Also landing outside the realm of reality was an idea to paint a sheet of plywood black and somehow attach Christmas lights to reflect the time so the contraption appeared as a massive, digital clock. The hope was then to hoist the “clock” over the analog clock face of our clock tower, but unfortunately wind kept snagging the contraption and smashing the the mechanics.

But we all know the ones that were pulled off, like the Lion's Gate Bridge, the car on the clock tower and the janitor's closet — when the new dean of engineering was welcomed to his position with his office transformed into a working janitorial closet, light switches and all.

Some that may have faded to distant memory, however, are the Omar pranks.

According to Richardson, Forestry had a car nicknamed Omar, which was ceremoniously destroyed every year in some way or another. One year, Omar was placed outside of a main library and covered with concrete with two rubber gloves poking out to give the impression someone was buried underneath.

“It just stayed there all year ... because it was so heavy. But then during Engineering Week, some people came and opened the door,” said Richardson. “[They] smashed the very thin layer of concrete that was there and shovelled all the dirt out, inflated the tires, started it up and drove away.” 

However, does the pranking represent more than a disruption someone’s day? According to Seidemann, yes.

“I can say without any hesitation that the reason I went to UBC, as opposed to other schools, is because of the pranks,” he said. “I think the best value of the pranks is they demonstrate in a really tangible way what you are doing when you're getting an engineering degree.”