Nightwork

Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT

T. F. Peterson
with a new essay by Eric Bender
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 248
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vjp54
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  • Book Info
    Nightwork
    Book Description:

    An MIT "hack" is an ingenious, benign, andanonymous prank or practical joke, often requiring engineering or scientificexpertise and often pulled off under cover of darkness -- instances of campus mischief sometimes coinciding withApril Fool's Day, final exams, or commencement. (It should not beconfused with the sometimes nonbenign phenomenon of computer hacking.)Noteworthy MIT hacks over the years include the legendary Harvard--YaleFootball Game Hack (when a weather balloon emblazoned "MIT" poppedout of the ground near the 50-yard line), the campus police car found perchedon the Great Dome, the apparent disappearance of the Institute president'soffice, and a faux cathedral (complete with stained glass windows, organ, andwedding ceremony) in a lobby. Hacks are by their nature ephemeral, althoughthey live on in the memory of both perpetrators and spectators. Nightwork,drawing on the MIT Museum's unique collection of hack-related photographsand other materials, describes and documents the best of MIT's hacks andhacking culture. Thisgenerously illustrated updated edition has added coverage of such recent hacksas the cross-country abduction of rival Caltech's cannon (a prankrequiring months of planning, intricate choreography, and last-minute improvisation),a fire truck on the Dome that marked the fifth anniversary of 9/11, andnumerous pokes at the celebrated Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center, and even aworking solar-powered Red Line subway car on the Great Dome. Hackshave been said to express the essence of MIT, providing, as alumnusAndre DeHon observes, "an opportunity todemonstrate creativity and know-how in mastering the physical world."What better way to mark the 150th anniversary of MIT's founding than tocommemorate its native ingenuity with this new edition of Nightwork?

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29575-8
    Subjects: Sociology, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vii)
  3. FOREWORD
    (pp. viii-ix)
    Deborah G. Douglas

    My first hack experience was the Harvard–Yale Football Game Hack in 1982. I was a junior at Wellesley College and my father and I were attending the big game. My dad had been part of the Harvard Band, so this was to be an afternoon of father–daughter bonding. More than a quarter-century later, we both still love to tell the story of what suddenly emerged on the field midway through the second quarter! In my wildest imagination back then, I could not have predicted that one day I would be the keeper of that famous hack.

    That day...

  4. CAMPUS MAP
    (pp. x-1)
  5. INTRODUCTION/HACKING 1.000H
    (pp. 2-4)
    T. F. PETERSON

    In 1914, MIT chose the beaver as its mascot from the pages ofMr. Hornaday’s Book on the Animals of North America. Lester Gardner (Class of 1898) explained why its candidacy was uncontested: “Of all the animals in the world,” he said, reading straight from Hornaday, “the beaver is noted for his engineering and mechanical skills and habits of industry. [He is] nocturnal, he does his best work in the dark.”

    Regardless of superficial changes to campus culture, such as the introduction of computers or mobile phones, the MIT animal has remained true to Hornaday’s description at the turn of...

  6. HACK, HACKER, HACKING
    (pp. 5-7)
    Brian Leibowitz

    The fifties saw the beginnings of the MIT term “hack.” The origin of the term in the MIT slang is elusive—different meanings have come in and out of use, and it was rarely used in print before the 1970s. Furthermore, the use of “hack” varied among different groups of students at MIT. “Hacking” was used by many MIT students to describe any activity undertaken to avoid studying—this could include goofing off, playing bridge, talking to friends, or going out. Performing pranks was also considered hacking, but only as part of the broader definition. In the middle to late...

  7. HACKING INTO THE NEW MILLENNIUM
    (pp. 8-37)
    ERIC BENDER

    On the sunny morning of April 6, 2006, a cannon appeared in the courtyard south of MIT’s Green Building.

    This was not a toy but a two-ton, fully working nineteenth-century weapon.

    Closer inspection revealed that its barrel now featured a giant gold-plated version of the Brass Rat, MIT’s class ring. An accompanying plaque noted that the cannon was poised to lob shells toward Pasadena, California—wherejust such a cannonhad gone missing from the California Institute of Technology nine days earlier. It was, in fact, the famed cannon that normally sits in front of Caltech’s Fleming House, and its...

  8. WHERE NO COW HAS GONE BEFORE: ACCESSING THE INACCESSIBLE
    (pp. 38-43)
    Anonymous

    Armchair aficionados of the sport often assume that hacking began as a twentieth-century phenomenon. But even before the Institute crossed the Charles River from Boston to Cambridge in 1916, MIT students were hacking. John Ripley Freeman, renowned civil engineer and member of the class of 1875, noted in his memoirs that pranksters habitually sprinkled iodide of nitrogen, a mild contact explosive, on the drill room floor, adding considerable snap to routine assembly.

    Of course, pranksters were not called hackers back then; only within the last forty years has the term “hack” been synonymous with campus hijinks. But it was in...

  9. AUTO INDUSTRY: THE GREAT VEHICLE HACKS
    (pp. 44-49)

    As the automobile grew increasingly central in American culture, it became a featured element of many hacks. During the 1920s and ’30s, MIT pranksters hauled cars up the sides of dormitories, parked them on the front steps of buildings, and hid them in basements—they even impaled a Ford coupe on a steel pole.

    In January 1926 the Dorm Goblin surreptitiously, and with nary a scratch to the vehicle, moved an illegally parked touring car to the basement of the Class of 1893 dormitory (now East Campus dorm). The removal required a team of sixteen workers and a tractor. Then...

  10. DOMEWORK: HACKING THE DOMES
    (pp. 50-73)
    Brian Leibowitz

    The Institute’s two signature domes have always been popular venues for hackers’ surrealist dioramas. The Little Dome is 72 feet in diameter and 100 feet high, and the Great Dome is 108 feet in diameter and 150 feet high. At the top of each is a flat platform approximately 20 feet in diameter (the Great Dome’s is slightly larger). The appearance of a cow, a prosthetic device, or a dorm room is all the more dramatic because access to the domes is difficult and relatively closely monitored. After making it through the 3-by-4-foot door, a hacker still has to scramble...

  11. INTRIGUING HACKS TO FASCINATE PEOPLE
    (pp. 74-75)

    The origins of the acronym “IHTFP” are strictly anecdotal. Many have claimed the amorphous motto as their own. Its use has been unofficially documented in both the U.S. Air Force and at MIT as far back as the 1950s. Whatever its ancestry, generations of MIT students have delighted in the acronym’s infinite versatility. “IHTFP” has appeared on signposts and in Greenspeak (written in the windows of the Green Building). It has even been printed on shoelaces. The point is to use it creatively: I Hate To Face Physics, It’s Hard To Fondle Penguins, I Have Truly Found Paradise. And of...

  12. GREENER PASTURES: THE GREEN BUILDING HACKS
    (pp. 76-83)

    MIT’s Green Building is a hacker’s dream. It is tall—one of the tallest on campus, rising 23 stories to 277 feet. It has ample display space—a symmetrical grid of more than 150 windows. It is highly visible—from both Boston and Cambridge. It even has a massive radar dome (or radome) that sits atop the flat roof. Not surprisingly, even before construction was finished in 1964, hackers had already staked their claim by suspending a “Tech is Hell” banner from the top of the construction site’s pile driver.

    Over the years, hackers have dressed the Green Building’s 26.5-foot...

  13. MAKING AN ENTRANCE: THE LOBBY 7 HACKS
    (pp. 84-101)

    Most visitors to MIT (and a gigantic portion of the MIT community) enter the Institute through the doors at 77 Massachusetts Avenue. This is the entrance under MIT’s Little Dome. Technically, this is the Rogers Building, named for MIT’s founder William Barton Rogers, but everyone calls it Building 7. The grand open space under the Little Dome is Lobby 7. Given the thousands who pass through Lobby 7 on a daily basis, it is not surprising that it is a popular venue for grand-scaleinteriorhacks. Generations of students have passed through this gateway only to be greeted by welcome...

  14. “ALL MONDAYS SHOULD BE SO BEAUTIFUL”: THE ART OF HACKING ART
    (pp. 102-111)

    What many in the MIT community think of as one of the great Lobby 7 hacks was actually artwork and not a hack at all. The field of wheat that students and staff strolled through one Monday morning in May1996 was an art installation entitled “The Garden in the Machine.” The nearly 100,000 stalks of wheat were planted by artist Scott Raphael Schiamberg (1993 SB, 1996 MArch, 1996 MCP), a graduate student striving to invoke the grand American pastoral tradition with an intimate, small-scale oasis.

    Because of its sheer ingenuity, surreal impact, and obvious impermanence, the wheat field was seen...

  15. FORM + FUNCTION = HACK: THE ARCHITECTURE HACKS
    (pp. 112-119)

    MIT students have found hacking to be as effective for poking fun at campus architecture as it is for art. In 1988, for example, when the plans for the Stratton Student Center renovation were posted, hackers overlaid the rendering with a print of an M. C. Escher staircase that bore an uncanny resemblance to the actual design. In the same year, with a few cans of red, yellow, and green paint, they turned a vertical row of round windows in the new Health Services building into a giant stoplight. (This was topped in 2007 by a hack that turned the...

  16. CAMPUS COMMENTARY: HACKS AS POLICY PROTESTS (PLUS A FEW COMPLAINTS AND HUMOROUS SHOUT-OUTS)
    (pp. 120-127)

    MIT students view hacking as a handy forum on the whole gamut of administration policies and procedures. One perpetual beef is housing. Like students at many universities, MIT students over the years have considered the living accommodations to be too scarce, too small, too expensive, and generally below par.

    In 1970, residents moving into the newly unveiled MacGregor dormitory were beset with plumbing and electrical problems in the unfinished building. Paying tribute to the building’s contractor, hackers added a realistic cornerstone to the new facade. It was inscribed “Jackson Sux.” In 1994, when the renovation of the Building 14 wheelchair...

  17. A SIGN OF THE TIMES: HACKING WITH SIGNS AND BANNERS
    (pp. 128-139)

    The MIT community awaits hacks on April Fool’s Day with the same anticipation that weather watchers look for Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day. But when the campus population looked up expectantly at the Great Dome on April 1, 2000, they saw instead an enormous banner stretched across its august pedestal that read “Ceci n’est pas un hack” (“This is not a hack”)—a wry play on Magritte’sThe Treachery of Images.

    Signs and banners are indeed one of the mainstays of hacking. In 1925,The Techincluded a short note that “The boys in ’93 Dormitory are certainly getting high...

  18. THE NUMBERS GAME: HACKERS REINVENT MEASUREMENT
    (pp. 140-145)

    Numbers loom large in the MIT culture, so it’s not surprising that hackers feel the need to work them from time to time. On April Fool’s Day in 1972, for example, they published a handy manual called the “Alphabetic Number Tables” that spelled out and alphabetized all numbers 0–1000. “Availing ourselves of the unmatched technological facilities of this Institute,” the introduction read, “we have developed, compiled, and revised these listings in the hope of bridging the cultural gap separating theoretical investigation and practical application.” They hawked the manual for fifty cents in Lobby 10.

    The same year also saw...

  19. BEYOND RECOGNITION: COMMEMORATION HACKS
    (pp. 146-153)
    Charles M. Vest

    Although the MIT community does not suffer fools gladly, it does have a sentimental streak. Students rarely let important (and even some less-than-important) occasions pass without observing them in some fashion—greeting William Shatner with scale model of the StarshipEnterprise, for example. Some of the most memorable hacks over the years have commemorated holidays, celebrations, official visits, or just the start or end of school.

    Hackers have contrived all sorts of ways to initiate newcomers into MIT culture. As MIT President Paul Gray gave his annual speech welcoming incoming students in 1986, Kresge Auditorium was suddenly filled with the...

  20. OBJECT LESSONS: HACKS IN THE CLASSROOM
    (pp. 154-159)

    Since the time in the 1870s that students sprinkled mild contact-explosives on the drill room floor, the MIT classroom has been a hotbed of pranks. One bright fall day in 1985, students filing into their physics lecture (8.01) took what they thought were the usual handouts at the front of the room. When they sat down and reviewed the day’s assignment, however, they found that a class hack was afoot. The handout, parodying typical class assignments, supplied detailed instructions for the construction and launch of a paper airplane. The hack went off without a hitch at precisely 11:15, when hundreds...

  21. WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS: HACKS FIT TO PRINT
    (pp. 160-163)

    Literary hacking at MIT can be traced all the way back to 1939, when an alumnus from the class of 1889 penned the novelty novel “Gadsby,” a 50,110-word saga that did not contain a single “e.” In fact, the author tied the “e” key down on his typewriter to avoid any inadvertent slips.

    According toGadsby, “Youth cannot stay for long in a condition of inactivity,” and thus it is with literary hackers. Throughout MIT’s history, hackers have been prolific authors, publishing parody magazines, posters, and brochures. The one thing they all have in common is obsessive attention to detail—...

  22. TEACHING A NATION TO MAKE SNOW: HOAX HACKS
    (pp. 164-165)

    At a school where gorillas leap out of helicopters to pick up a copy of the campus humor magazine, successful pranks are often elaborate affairs—no more so than the hoax hacks.

    If the 1998 MIT Homepage hoax had not happened on April Fool’s Day, hackers might well have tricked a few people into thinking that a Fortune 500 company had bought the world-class university. In response to MIT’s increasing relationships with Disney, hackers were inspired to break into the web server and “Disnefy” the Institute’s homepage. As a result, Mickey Mouse, in his Sorcerer’s Apprentice costume, appeared to have...

  23. “PLEASE WAIT TO BE SERVED”: THE PERFORMANCE HACKS
    (pp. 166-169)

    Sometimes a propeller beanie set jauntily atop the Great Dome says it all, but every now and then, a procession, a kidnapping, or even a boiling cauldron is necessary. In the vernacular, these “happenings” are known as “performance hacks.” From mock swordfights to chanting monks, performance hacks are an enduring Institute tradition.

    In 1978, two MIT traditions were melded to create one of the most beloved performance hacks of all time. Since 1953, the Institute had been crowning the Ugliest Man on Campus (today, it is the ugliest “manifestation”). The UMOC (pronounced “you mock”) is a charity event held by...

  24. WHEN MIT WON THE HARVARD–YALE GAME: HACKING HARVARD
    (pp. 170-183)
    Jessica Marshall

    Over the years, the red brick school at the other end of Massachusetts Avenue has been the recipient of more than its fair share of hacks. Because it has been hacked so many times—in so many ways—Harvard may be the expert on MIT hacks, and the school has its own lore about the way it has been hacked by MIT. This account is written from the MIT perspective, however.

    MIT hackers are particularly dedicated to “enhancing” the Ivy League school’s most hallowed traditions. The earliest recorded MIT hack on “Hahvaad” was in 1940, when MIT students initiated a...

  25. BECAUSE IT’S THERE: THE BEST OF THE REST
    (pp. 184-191)
    Philip A. Trussell

    Often, when a prominent fixture emerges on the campus landscape, members of the MIT community will say, “Well, it’s just a matter of time.” And everybody knows what that means. The statue, the sign, the vacant lot is just asking to be hacked.

    When a new information booth, The Source, was set up in the student center in the mid-1990s, hackers could not resist setting up a spoof booth a few yards away. The sign for The Sink looked nearly identical to that of the neighboring booth, but the personnel staffing The Sink dressed entirely in black, wore dark glasses,...

  26. ZEN AND THE ART OF HACKING
    (pp. 192-205)
    David Barber, André DeHon, Eri Izawa and Samuel Jay Keyser

    The essays in this section offer first-person perspectives on the art and science of hacking. The authors’ philosophies and anecdotes illustrate why, generation after generation, regardless of changes in trends and mores, hacking thrives at MIT.

    As the Confined Space Program Coordinator at MIT, I and my partner Gary Cunha evaluate, manage, and remove hacks at the Institute. To the best of my knowledge, we’re the only people at MIT—maybe the only two people anywhere—whose job descriptions include “hack management.” This unusual duty has given us a special perspective on hacks and the people who perform them.

    Whenever...

  27. GLOSSARY OF MIT VERNACULAR
    (pp. 206-207)
  28. SOURCES
    (pp. 208-209)
  29. PHOTO CREDITS
    (pp. 210-211)
  30. INDEX OF HACKS
    (pp. 212-232)