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Infamous MIT Hacks (Pranks) and their influence on hacker ethic

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MIT domeMIT pranks, or “hacks” as they are known in MIT lore, showcase MIT students’ scientific knowledge, mechanical engineering skills, anti-authoritarian whimsy, and geeky sense of humor. The tradition dates back to the 1870’s when students sprinkled iodide of nitrogen over the grounds of a military drill field causing mini explosions when fellow classmates conducted their marching drills. While other “better” educational institutions such has Harvard and Yale, went to great lengths to capture and punish pranksters, MIT authorities never made the mistake of regarding a prank as a crime and instead viewed them as an extension of the students’ curiosity, the true motivator in the quest for greater knowledge.

Hacks at MIT started almost immediately after the institution was established. When MIT was founded in 1865, the state of Massachusetts granted the institution land in the newly developed Black Bay of Boston and in return, required students learn military maneuvers. Students, none too happy with having to conduct marching drills, struck back within 5 years of the institution’s establishment. In 1870, students gathered on top of one of the buildings near the marching grounds and dropped a giant torpedo from the fourth floor, not so much in order to surprise their marching classmates but rather to express their feelings of how ridiculous the marching requirement was.

Over time, the hacks evolved to reflect the technical aptitude and cleverness of the students and to commemorate popular culture and historical topics. Famous hacks include a weather balloon labeled “MIT” rising, seemingly from nowhere, from underneath the ground at a Harvard vs. Yale football game, the placing of a campus cruiser on the roof of the Great Dome building (the car’s number was pi), and converting the Great Dome into a huge R2-D2 caricature.

Most hacks are temporary installations and removed in a day or two by the MIT Physical Plant. Some however, are considered “permanent improvements” to the campus and have been left behind indefinitely. In September 2011, hackers installed hundreds of custom-made, wirelessly controlled high-power multi-colored LED light fixtures into every window of the MIT Green Building. MIT authorities felt the lights were an added benefit to the campus. The lights were left installed (cutoff switches were added so inhabitants could press a button to deactivate them for up to 4 hours) and became a permanent part of the building. On April 20, 2012, MIT hackers went a step further and turned the Green Building into a giant playable game of Tetris, operated from a wireless control podium at a comfortable distance from the building. Visitors to the Campus during Preview Weekend (a weekend where prospective freshman student are allowed to tour the campus) were invited to play the game on the colossal display grid.

The terms hack and computer hacker have many shades of meaning but in the traditional sense, are closely linked historically and culturally with the MIT tradition where the limits of skill and planning are pushed to the extreme. Over time, the term has been generalized to describe anybody who possesses great technical proficiency in a particular skill set usually combined with an offbeat sense of humor.

The hacks, which are anonymously installed at night by the hackers, are governed by an extensive and informal body of precedent, tradition, and ethics and MIT pranksters go to great lengths to ensure their hacks cause no harm to people or property. Often pranksters leave behind detailed instructions and engineering diagrams describing how to safely and efficiently disassemble and de-install a hack. Pranks against rival institutions may end with a Barbeque invitation and celebration as MIT students help restore order from the chaos they may have caused. As with modern day computer hackers, the spirit of innovation, curiosity, and fun reigns supreme.

Below is a pictorial montage of my favorite MIT hacks. Click the pictures for a gallery-like show with a description and historical account of the hack.


Sources: MIT Museum, MIT Encyclopedia, MIT, CNN, MSNBC


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