Hacks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Hacks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are practical jokes and pranks meant to prominently demonstrate technical aptitude and cleverness or commemorate popular culture and historical topics. The pranks are anonymously constructed at night by undergraduate students (hackers) and are governed by an extensive and informal body of precedent, tradition, and ethics. Although hacks can occur across campus, many make use of the prominent Great Dome. Hacker alumni include Nobel Laureate George F. Smoot. Although the practice is unsanctioned by the university and students have been arraigned on trespassing charges for hacking, hacks have substantial significance to MIT's history and student culture and several hacks are prominently featured as exhibits in recent buildings such as the Stata Center and MIT Museum.

Famous hacks include a weather balloon labeled "MIT" appearing at the 50-yard line at the Harvard/Yale football game in 1982, placing a campus police cruiser on the roof of the Great Dome, converting the Great Dome into R2-D2 or a large yellow ring to acknowledge the release of Star Wars Episode I and Lord of the Rings respectively, or placing replicas of the Wright Flyer and a firetruck to acknowledge the anniversaries of first flight and the September 11th attacks respectively.

Famous hacks

Though hacks are fairly common on the campus, a few hacks have stood the test of time.

One hack involved a police car with its warning lights running. The unusual aspect of this hack was its position—on top of MIT's Great Dome. The car was found to be a gutted, junked, heavy Chevrolet, painted meticulously to match the MIT Campus Police patrol cars. The car's number was pi. Its license plate read "IHTFP", the abbreviation for MIT's unofficial slogan. A dummy dressed as a campus patrolman was seated inside with a box of donuts.

Due to MIT's proximity to Harvard, many hacks involve the annual Harvard-Yale football game. Because of the Cambridge rivalry between MIT and Harvard, hackers often are found at the games and have come up with some of the most famous hacks in the Institute's history.

One notable hack attempt targeting the 1948 Harvard-Yale football game involved the use of primer cord. One night shortly before the game MIT students snuck into the Harvard stadium and buried primer cord just under the field. The plan was to burn the letters MIT into the middle of the field during the game. However, their work was uncovered by groundskeepers and disabled. During the game the hackers were apprehended while wearing heavy coats on a fair-weather day. The coats were lined with batteries, obviously intended to be used to detonate the primer cord. An apocryphal story is that an MIT dean came to their defense, opening his own battery-lined coat and claiming that "all Tech men carry batteries"; an MIT dean did show up, but he was not wearing batteries. This phrase has since become common among MIT students.

The Harvard-Yale football game was again the target of MIT hacks in 1982 when a weather balloon painted with "MIT" all around it was inflated seemingly from nowhere in the middle of the field. In 1990 an MIT banner was successfully launched from an end zone using a model rocket engine shortly before Yale attempted a field goal kick. The next day the Boston Herald ran the headline "MIT 1--Harvard-Yale 0: Tech Pranksters Steal the Show."

The cleverness of many MIT hacks has even resulted in urban legends about supposed hacks. One rumored hack involved a certain student's adherence to classical conditioning behavior response. Throughout the off-season, this supposed student visited the Harvard football stadium during his lunch break. He dressed in a black and white striped shirt and trousers, filled his pockets with bird-seed, then went on the field, blew a whistle, and spread his birdseed on the field. The result of all of this effort, the story goes, is that on opening day as the Harvard football team took the field to face their opponent, the referee blew his whistle to signal the start of the game, and the field was suddenly inundated by a flock of birds looking for their lunch. Despite sounding like a classic MIT hack, this particular prank has never been verified. The author of a 1990 book about pranks pulled by MIT students stated that he had not come across this tale during his years of research.

When MIT installed new lighting to illuminate the Great Dome, hackers started changing the color of the lights to reflect various occasions--Earth Day, the Fourth of July, etc. [1][2][3]

Caltech rivalry

MIT and Caltech have been going at each other with pranks for several years. Recently, a group of Caltech students, during the admitted students program at MIT in 2005, pulled a string of pranks, including covering up the word Massachusetts in the "Massachusetts Institute of Technology" engraving on the main building fa├žade with a banner so that it read "That Other Institute of Technology". A group of MIT hackers responded by altering the banner so that the inscription read "The Only Institute of Technology".

MIT retaliated in April 2006, when students posing as the Howe & Ser Moving Company stole the 130 year old, 1.7 ton Fleming House cannon and moved it to their campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, repeating a similar prank performed by Harvey Mudd College in 1986. "Howe & Ser" most obviously sounds like "howitzer" if read recognizing that the & symbol is a ligature of the Latin word "et", but it could also mean "how we answer" as a retaliation for 2005. To add to that, a replica of the famed "brass rat" (MIT's graduation ring) was machined to fit onto the cannon which was also pointed towards Caltech. Thirty members of Fleming House traveled to MIT and reclaimed their cannon on April 10, 2006. They were greeted by a group of MIT students, offering them a farewell party. The Caltech students left behind a small toy cannon, saying that this was "More MIT's size."

During MIT's Campus Preview Weekend in 2007, Caltech distributed a complete fake edition of The Tech (MIT's student newspaper) with the headline article reading "MIT invents the Interweb". This edition included a mock weather forecast, often referring to how sunny Pasadena (where Caltech is located) is compared to Boston, as well as other tongue-in-cheek articles.

In 2008, Caltech students provided a "Puzzle Zero" in the MIT Mystery Hunt which when solved, told solvers to "CALL 1-626-848-3780 ASAP." When MIT students dialed the number, they heard, "Thank you for calling the Caltech Admissions Office. If you are another MIT student wishing to transfer to Caltech, please download our transfer application form from www.caltech.edu. If you are an MIT student not wishing to transfer to Caltech, we wish you the best of luck, and hope you find happiness someday.... "

IHTFP

IHTFP is an abbreviation which makes up part of the folklore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It originally stood for "I Hate This Fucking Place" but, due to use of profanity, is often euphemized with other backronyms. Some of the more popular meanings include "I Help Tutor Freshman Physics", "It's Hard to Fondle Penguins", "I'm Hankering To Find Paradise", and "Interesting Hacks To Fascinate People", as well as "I Have Truly Found Paradise", "Institute for Hacks TomFoolery and Pranks" and "Institute Has The Finest Professors." The precise time of origin is unknown, though the term IHTFP was already widely used at MIT by 1960.

A common motif in the MIT Brass Rat is the inclusion of the letters IHTFP hidden somewhere in the bezel.

Timeline of recent hacks

2007

October 2007: MIT students strung a "GO SOX!" banner across the 1,000+ foot span between MacGregor Dormitory and Tang Graduate Dormitory to cheer on the Boston Red Sox during the 2007 World Series.
September 2007: MIT Students adorned the John P. Harvard statue in Harvard Yard with a Halo MJOLNIR armor helmet and assault rifle to commemorate the release of Halo 3.
July 2007: MIT students put a Dark Mark over MIT's Student Center to celebrate the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

2006

on Fleming House cannon at MIT.]]

November 2006: MIT Hackers put a huge Triforce on the Great Dome. It was in commemoration of the release of the video game Twilight Princess.
September 2006: In Mid-September, part of the side of Simmons Hall was turned into a giant blue LED display.
September 11, 2006: An "MIT Fire Department" fire truck was placed on the Great Dome, presumably to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
August 2006: A welcome back poster and a few dozen rubber ducks in the name of Simmons Hall at MIT appeared on the Caltech campus in mid-August. They were accompanied by posters that presented proposed renovations to add Simmons-like architectural elements (particularly the ones often regarded as useless by MIT students) to Caltech dormitories, which were undergoing renovation.
April 6, 2006: A 130 year-old, 3+ ton cannon was moved from Caltech to MIT via a fake moving company "Howe & Ser Moving Co." This marked the 20th anniversary when 11 students from Harvey Mudd College removed the cannon from the front of the Fleming House. The cannon was situated in a prominent place on campus and was adorned with a unique Brass Rat. It was symbolically pointed at its previous owner, Caltech. Thirty members of Fleming House traveled to MIT and reclaimed their cannon on April 10, 2006. They left a toy cannon with the note, "Here's something more your size."
February 28, 2006: A giant model Torino 2006 Olympics Medal appeared on the Great Dome.

2004

September 15, 2004: A small alcove in the Infinite Corridor was covered by a painted plank of wood with a door. The "room" inside was named and labeled the Vannevar Shrubbery Room, a parody of the larger Vannevar Bush Room, whose entrance location had changed due to renovations.

2003

December 17, 2003: A replica of the first Wright Brothers airplane was placed on the Great Dome, in honor of the 100th anniversary of their first powered flight.
April 23, 2003: Hundreds of gnomes of various shapes and sizes appeared in and around the W20 Student Center Athena cluster.

Previous hacks

April 1, 1998: As an April Fool's Day prank, the MIT home page was replaced with a page announcing the university had been bought by The Walt Disney Company for $6.9 billion. The hacked page showed a picture of Mickey Mouse ears atop the Great Dome, and replaced the letter I in MIT with the lower-case "i" from Disney's wordmark. It even contained a fake press release with statements purportedly from Disney and MIT officials, detailing terms of the acquisition.
May 9, 1994: A carefully assembled outer frame of a car painted as an MIT Campus Police car appeared on top of the Great Dome. This hack quickly gained recognition on many local news sources and on national television.
October 1958: Oliver R. Smoot, a pledge of MIT's Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity in 1958, was used to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge. As he lay on the bridge (that carries Massachusetts Avenue across the Charles River), markers were made at each distance between his head and feet. The bridge was determined to be 364.4 Smoots (plus or minus one ear) in length, and the markers remain to this day.

Further reading

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