Hacking at MIT predates computers and refers to the physical exploration of hidden, often inaccessible building spaces such as steam tunnels and rooftops (“going hacking”) or elaborate, extremely clever student pranks (“pulling a hack”). Some of the most famous examples of the latter occurred during the Harvard-Yale football game, November 20, 1982.
First, as documented in this news story, members of MIT’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity “built, plotted, buried, and triggered” a black weather balloon emblazoned “MIT,” which inflated to six feet on the 46-yard line before exploding in a harmless cloud of talcum powder midway through the second quarter. Next, members of the MIT Band, disguised as the Yale Marching Band, snuck onto the playing field at halftime and arranged their bodies to spell out “MIT.” Last but not least, a third, totally independent group of MIT hackers handed out colored cards that formed out “MIT” rather than “Beat Yale!” when raised by eleven hundred Harvard fans near the end of the game.
“An MIT hack, like science and technology themselves, is judged by how elegantly it accomplishes its objective,” writes T. F. Peterson in Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT. By that standard, Peterson continues, the hacking hat trick at the 1982 Harvard-Yale football game is “quintessential”: “It reflected the preparation, efficiency, and whimsy that all the most venerable hacks display. More than that, it was a charmingly self-aware, even self-deprecatory statement—another characteristic of the most effective hacks. It said, ‘Sure, it may be laughable that we could win a football game by our athletic prowess, but we definitely can win it with our brains.'”
This sentiment extends far beyond MIT, and links diverse hacking subcultures. Whether you’re a lock picker, a phone phreak, a computer hacker, or a so-called social engineer, playfully outsmarting the powers that be and subverting normal user—and designer—expectations is perhaps the best way to show off your skills or establish your credentials. If your targets are as prominent as Harvard and Yale, and your pranks as impressive—and amusing—as those the MIT hackers pulled at the 1982 game, your work may even enter larger hacker lore.