what is origin of
February 22, 2005 7:46 PM   Subscribe

as an 80s child, i grew up with the whole tin-foil hat stereotype (or should i say, at this point, archetype?) i've never been able, however, to find the origin of the puzzle. any clues?
posted by yonation to Society & Culture (17 answers total)
 
You're asking where the "tin-foil hat" meme comes from? I guess I can't name any names, but it comes from the belief that the government's (or the aliens') monitoring equipment is such that it can receive and understand the very thoughts in your head, but that tin foil would shield your head from such intrusions.
posted by Doohickie at 7:52 PM on February 22, 2005


i understand what it means -- but where does it come from?
posted by yonation at 7:53 PM on February 22, 2005


I know this isn't too specific, but perhaps someone can elaborate. Some conspiracy theories involve the idea that Secret Government Projects are trying to use radio waves to control our minds. Since a Faraday Cage blocks radio waves, and since it's made of metal, perhaps the thinking was that wrapping anything in metal protects it from radio waves. So, making a hat out of tinfoil would not only protect you from the Secret Government Mind Control Projects, but would be cheap and fashionable, as well.
posted by odinsdream at 8:02 PM on February 22, 2005


Someone on wikipedia names the 1983 movie Lovesick as a possible earliest usage.
posted by kickingtheground at 8:02 PM on February 22, 2005


i understand what it means -- but where does it come from?

I don't know for sure, but I'd imagine it came from an actual nut who wore one. A place I used to work at we had a guy who hung around who wore a hat made of metal in the shape of a pyramid that he told my boss allowed him to commune with aliens, so perhaps it's a common delusion.
posted by jonmc at 8:18 PM on February 22, 2005


Scientific American, February 1904:

CHIMERICAL RAYS--"M. Aug Charpentier brings out the interesting point that the rays given out by living organisms differ from the N-rays discovered by M. Rene Prosper Blondlot, and the thinks they are formed of N-rays and another new form of radiation. This is especially true of the rays from the nerve centers or nerves, whose striking characteristic is that they are partially cut off by an aluminum screen. A sheet of 1/50th of an inch is sufficient to cut down considerably the rays emitted by a point of the brain..."

via Nothing To See Here.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:59 PM on February 22, 2005


Some more research:

The idea of blocking 'rays' with tinfoil is an old one (see SciAm article above). People who sound like they know what they're talking about suggest that the idea of tinfoil hats to prevent mind control seems to have arrived in pyschiatric literature in the 50s, presumably because:

- there was actually something 'up there' that could read your thoughts / control your mind (Sputnik!);
- there was actually somebody (damn Russians / the gubmint) who'd actually have a reason to do so; and
- science fiction and futurists made people more generally aware about fantastic concepts like 'rays'.

Mix in some schizophrenia, and voila - tin foil hats. "Lovesick" seems to be the next mass media reference, although a Usenet poster remembers:

"...reading a book by Arthur Janov in the seventies about a guy who took a lot of acid and liked reading about UFOs. He came to believe that aliens called 'Creolans' were trying to influence him by means of 'mind control tones' hidden in normal TV and radio signals. Eventually someone called the men in white coats who found him hiding in a kitchen cupboard clutching a carving knife, his head wrapped in aluminium foil."

Some other guy's Nexis search revealed:

"Prior to August 1994, there was but a single hit in all media archived by Nexis (which archives a whole ton of media, going back to the '70s). Then, starting in August 1994, the usage kicked in. That month, both the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury News used the term, as jokey references to paranoid anti-government types. By December, it was in Europe, in London's Daily Mail. And it's been in regular use ever since. I suspect something happened in popular culture in summer 1994 that pushed this into the wider lexicon. A movie, a TV show ... something, somewhere, made "tinfoil hat" familiar enough that newspaper columnists suddenly felt comfortable using it for their mainstream audiences."

The 1994 thing prompted others to suggest "The X Files" as a probably cause behind sudden mass awareness of conspiracy theories, aliens, cosmic rays and the like.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:24 PM on February 22, 2005


Don't know if this helps, but I distinctly remember hearing the meme around the time Skylab was re-entering the atmosphere in the late '70s. It had something to do with wearing the tinfoil as a way of decreasing your odds of having parts of it fall on your head... which, being 10, I thought made a vague sort of sense -- until my Super-Scientific Skeptic Grandpa explained to me why all such things were, to use his word, malarkey.
posted by scody at 10:05 PM on February 22, 2005


Then, starting in August 1994, the usage kicked in. That month, both the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury News used the term, as jokey references to paranoid anti-government types. By December, it was in Europe, in London's Daily Mail. And it's been in regular use ever since. I suspect something happened in popular culture in summer 1994 that pushed this into the wider lexicon. A movie, a TV show ... something, somewhere, made "tinfoil hat" familiar enough that newspaper columnists suddenly felt comfortable using it for their mainstream audiences.

I believe I can identify that something. That something is USENET. The first post I can find is in 1992.

But actually I can do that one better. The reason that 1992-1994 was the "breakout" period for this meme was that those years were a period of exposure for the Soviet psychotronic weapons research effort, Prior to that, Nexis must have missed the story of Rex Niles, an FBI informant who became so paranoid he slept in an aluminum foil tent and wore an aluminum foil hat.

I don't remember anything about Skylab and foil hats, but I distinctly recall debating a fellow at college regarding whether or not the CIA knew precisely where in Beirut the hostages like Terry McMillan were. After going back and forth as he extolled "advanced surveillance technology" and other such generalities, it finally dawned on me that he meant MK-ULTRA remote sensing. (He was also a crank tirelessly ready to debate anyone on why the US should return to the gold standard, so I should have been prepared.)
posted by dhartung at 1:55 AM on February 23, 2005


a friend who is a doctor told me years ago that it was pretty comical how often the stereotypes of certain mental illnesses showed up when he was seeing patients. he specifically said that he found it surprisingly common for certain patients to wear a hat lined with tinfoil (or something similar), to 'protect themselves' from mind control.

when i lived in brooklyn in the late 90s i stood in line at my local bank behind a guy wearing a plastic batting helmet, well-lined with tin-foil. he didn't seem to quite have it all together...
posted by chr1sb0y at 5:20 AM on February 23, 2005


While googling up a hunch that this was a characteristic of the followers of Wilhelm Reich, I did find this discussion
posted by telstar at 5:26 AM on February 23, 2005


There was an episode in the first season of Starsky & Hutch, where a man released from a mental hospital uses tin-foil to protect himself from rays that he thinks are being beamed at him. I can't remember the name of the episode, but (spoiler alert) he turned out to be the bad guy.
posted by veedubya at 6:20 AM on February 23, 2005


Someone on wikipedia names the 1983 movie Lovesick as a possible earliest usage.

cf. the following from Denis Johnson's excellent novel Angels (1983):

“And he keeps tin foil inside it. What’s that supposed to be for?”
James was beginning to look a little nervous. “Well, he says it keeps out the e-rays.”
“E-rays. Did you say e-rays?”
“Yes I did.”
“There really any such thing as e-rays?”
“I wouldn’t know about that, Bill Junior. There ain’t any tin foil in my hat, is all I know.”
“This is our leader,” Bill Houston said. “A young dude with tinfoil on his head.”
posted by scratch at 7:04 AM on February 23, 2005


In the sixties, in Washington, D.C., I remember ocassionally seeing a fellow wearing a "tinfoil hat". The notion among my friends was that he believed that the foil protected him from "noxious rays". It wasn't clear to us just what the source of these rays might be. This fellow was not hard to pick out of a crowd. Before reading the above answers, I actually thought that this guy might be the source of the meme.
posted by Hobgoblin at 7:13 AM on February 23, 2005


The checked answers were well researched, so I post this only for interest's sake.

In the mid-80s, in our local paper (A then-legitimate, and still widely circulated, paper - the Asbury Park Press) there were frequent letters to the editor from one individual. This man felt an urgent need to warn all of us that we should line our ceilings with tinfoil to protect against "Cosmic Argon Energy Exhaust".

He was completely serious, and hey, the paper published the letters, but my Dad and I got such a kick out of it that twenty years later, we still refer to cosmic argon energy exhaust.
posted by Miko at 9:03 AM on February 23, 2005


some character is referenced by Frank Zappa in his autobiography as wearing a collander on his head to protect him from bad rays of some sort. I'm sure a text-inside search for "collander" would find it, sorry to be lazy :)
posted by petebest at 9:29 AM on February 23, 2005


Just another example, really, but once on the subway in NY in the late 80s a guy came down the car, asking the passengers not for money but for tinfoil and string. He was pretty lucid about it: said he needed tinfoil and string to build his rocketship. He also had two live, if weirdly groggy, cats on his shoulders. The friend who was with me on the train said that stockpiling tinfoil and string was actually a well known obsessive/compulsive behavior - but I've never found any references to it or been able to get a name for it. However, if it exists, that might also have led to the stereotype?
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:50 AM on February 23, 2005


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