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Hackers

Hacker. The word prompts images of energy-drink guzzling teens breaking into databases and stealing personal information. But that's really not right.

A real hacker, in the tradition of Woz, Captain Crunch and other OG hackers wasn't at all about stealing. It was about solving a puzzle, playing a prank, showing your smarts.

Hacking really didn't start out with computers. During the 70s and early 80s, it was pretty hard to get a hold of the necessary hardware to do computer hacking (a teletype, a modem, $1000 of 70s dollars). Early hackers were 'Phone Phreaks', folks that used home-brewed gadgets like 'Blue Boxes' to create MF tones. These tones could be used to re-direct a call intended for a toll free service, to any number in the world with no charge. Hackers would do funny things like create a phone call that circled the globe on analog trunks, and marvel at the 10 second propagation delay when the spoke in one phone and listened on the other. As services like compuserve, AOL and TYMNET gave way to the Internet, these same clever souls refocused their  antics on systems they could access with microcomputers. The modern hacker was born.

The truly remarkable hacks, or 'Pranks' usually spawned from academic institutions, and more often than not, CalTech and MIT. A playful rivalry between these tech giants had gone on for decades. One in particular, is my favorite -- because of it's complexity, playfulness, and attack on college football, which in my opinion, takes itself way to seriously. 

The 1984 Rose Bowl took place on a warm and sunny January 2nd, between The UCLA Bruins and the University of Illinois Fighting Illini. Little did the fans, Tournament officials or Rose Bowl staff know that months before, a small team of CalTech students had made several unauthorized visits to the Bowl grounds. First, they gained access to the pressbox, and 'borrowed' manuals on the PDP-8 computer and the scoreboard software that controlled the huge electronic scoreboard above the stadium. Using those manuals, they reverse engineered the serial interface that was transmitted from the PDP-8 to the scoreboard. Later, they engineered hardware that could be tapped into the serial connection, and inject messages to the scoreboard. 

Like Ninjas, the team went back on night, and using rock-climbing skills they accessed a junction box under the pressbox where the serial cables connected. They installed a hand-modified microcomputer (think mid-80s) with a serial interface connected to the line. They used a walkie-talkie acting as a modem connection, allowing them to control the clandestine microcomputer from a nearby hill. 

Back on game day, during the 4th quarter the team sent some packets down their radio interface that changed the team names from UCLA and Illinois to CALTECH and MIT. They left other important game stats unchanged, like the score, but made sure that UCLA score of 38 was assigned to CALTECH, while Illinois' paltry 9 points was assigned to MIT. 

The tournament officials were outraged, and leveraged the Pasadena police and the City Prosecutor to press misdemeanor charges against two of the Caltech students, Ted Williams and Dan Kegel. There was outrage in the press and with the public, which loved the prank and were solidly behind Caltech.  This ended up with the students pleading "nolo contendre'', and serving probation and with no entries into their records. 

What I love about this story is the sheer audacity of attempting something like this. It reminds me of the brilliant hardware and software engineers I've had the pleasure of working with throughout my career. 

I feel so lucky to be working at a company filled with engineers who think like Williams and Kegel. 

Prank on!

 

 

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