A mixture of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) brothers and freshmen board Segways and zip down Massachusetts Avenue. I’ve been a freshman for less than a week and I must look like a deer in the headlights during rush week, but even I jump at the opportunity to heckle some Harvard students. When we reach that other school down the river, we turn into Harvard Yard. It must be the night of a formal event here, because students in imperial suits and royal gowns frolic in the yard. Will, a SAE brother, leads the line of Segways into a circle around a group of Harvard students. We start driving faster and tightening the circle, struggling to hide the smirks on our faces. Then, Will shouts, “Jolly noontime, lads. I order thee, part for the Harvard Segway Polo Team.” Some look in bewilderment, some in anger, and some in laughter. All the reactions fuel my excitement. As we weave and shout, I feel pride for a school I have been at for one week and a camaraderie with peers I met for the first time yesterday.
MIT doesn’t have a big football rival. It has a Cambridge rival, Harvard, and a technology rival, Caltech. MIT doesn’t have sports rallies and fight chants. It pranks–or hacks–its rivals in the night, demonstrating ingenuity and pride at the same time. From my first visit to MIT in 2010, I have been bombarded with glorified stories and images of monumental hacks. These are interesting to the tourist, but as a student, I now am curious to discover what is behind the intersection of rivalry and hack. I want to investigate the character of the hacks and what they might tell us about the culture of these three institutions and the relationships between them.
The earliest hacks were MIT-inspired and targeted at Harvard sporting events. The Harvard-Yale football game has been the primary target of MIT’s hacks on Harvard. In 1940, MIT students burned the letters of their institute into the Harvard football field (Peterson 172). Reports of failed hacks on the 1948 and 1978 games exist, but the most storied prank came in 1982. Engineered by three separate groups, a six-foot-diameter MIT balloon filled with white powder inflated and exploded at the forty-six yard line, MIT’s band sneaked onto the field at halftime to spell “MIT” in formation, and an array of cards disguised to spell “Beat Yale” but which actually spelled “MIT” were distributed (Peterson 172 and 176). MIT President Paul E. Gray claimed, “There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that I had anything to do with the planning or promoting of [the hack], but I wish there were” (Schwarz 1). The MIT community proudly supported the pranksters. The Harvard reaction was mixed. Backup Joe Ippolito was named hero of the game by his teammates for throwing a stone at the balloon, and Harvard Coach Joe Restic complained, “I didn’t think that this was the appropriate place…It is not part of the game and could have altered the outcome” (Berman). However, Harvard President Bok deemed the prank “a stunning practical joke” (Berman).
During the 1990 game, members of the MIT fraternity Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) planted and launched a rocket over the field goal posts, draping a massive MIT banner over the goal (Peterson 176). In Katherine Shim’s November 20, 1990 article in The Tech, three ZBT brothers claimed credit for the prank and proudly divulged both the intricate plans behind the 1990 success and the unfortunate flaws of previous failed attempts (Shim 1-2). The conception, planning, and execution of the hack were detailed in full and distributed through the highly read school newspaper, a testament to the unifying impact of the hacking rivalry on the MIT community as a whole. The school-wide support and interest also reveals MIT’s embrace of its role as technical instigator.
In the 2006 game, MIT hackers changed Harvard’s “VE-RI-TAS” logo on both sides of the scoreboard to “HU-GE-EGO” (Pentacoff). Reaction to or pride in this hack was not publicized in either The Tech or The Harvard Crimson except for a lone photograph, perhaps because of its abnormally disparaging nature. The tone of this hack provides a great insight to the MIT-Harvard hacking rivalry, which seems rather one-sided up to this point. Unlike some of the past engineering-feat hacks that had a playful tone, this one was a direct shot at the character of Harvard students and received no response from either administration. The hack exudes resentment of Harvard’s Ivy League status, but neither MIT’s administration nor student body embraced the hack’s uncharacteristic direct aim at Harvard’s perceived self-importance. It appears the MIT community generally views itself as an adroit instigator, not a rude troublemaker.
Overall, the football game hacks revealed important characteristics of the early rivalry. MIT was the instigator, pitting its engineering prowess against Harvard’s sports prowess. However, although the hacks lacked reciprocity, they were generally appreciated by both parties. In a 2008 account of her visit to the Harvard-Yale game, a Harvard student wrote, “[The MIT hack] has always amused me—MIT nerds feeling left out by the ceremony of self-importance and athletic exclusivity upriver, and resolving to crash the party” (Konrad). While the Harvard student’s arrogant sentiment is not representative of Harvard’s outlook, it reveals a fueling stereotype in the rivalry.
MIT hackers are not only out to poke fun at Harvard’s sports snobbery but love spoiling their fellow Cambridge residents stuffy traditions as well. On September 13, 1990, a group of hackers swooped into Harvard Yard and stole a silver plate, the Yard Plate, which freshmen spent the whole night searching for in their annual hunt (Stone 1). The pranksters delivered it to the office of MIT’s president. The next day, dressed in his ridiculous academic regalia (bonnet, gown, and royal cane) and escorted by a line of police cars, President Paul E. Gray presented the Yard Plate to the Harvard administrators on a lavish pillow (Stone 2). The theft and return of the Yard Plate were parodies of Harvard’s proud traditionalism, something that stands in stark contrast with MIT’s techy modernism.
While MIT’s hacks on Harvard-Yale football and Harvard’s Yard Plate traditions exhibited MIT students’ pride in their creativity, they have also been one-sided ventures that fall short of provoking an enthusiastic spirit of retribution on the part of MIT’s “victim.” Harvard’s disinterest may stem from a hidden insecurity, a fear that it could not match the creativity and ingenuity of MIT. In contrast, when the MIT student government humorously granted Harvard colonial status in 1982, and gave an MIT sophomore jurisdiction as governor over the college (Peterson 177), former Harvard Student Assembly Chairman Andrew Hermann poked back. He encouraged the imposition of a massive blockade around Harvard, sneering, “What are they going to attack us with–calculators and slide rules? They don’t even have a football team” (Marshall). Harvard Dean of Students Archie C. Epps added, “I didn’t realize that they learned anything about American government at MIT” (Marshall). The retaliation was indirect and hack-less, expressing a combination of mild disinterest, intellectual condescension and an aloof above-these-shenanigans attitude. However, the verbal assault suggests participation in a two-sided rivalry. Harvard parodied MIT’s narrow academic focus, inferior athletics program, and nerd stereotype. Harvard had finally deigned to get involved, but in its own vernacular: the snide repartee. It raises the question: Might Harvard’s superior attitude also cover an insecurity of its own—that it can’t quite match the upstart up the river on MIT’s own turf of ingenuity and engineering prowess?
Starting in 1960, MIT has made a ritual of attacking another icon of Harvard’s old and hoary history and traditions: the statue of the founder, John Harvard, that sits outside Harvard’s University Hall. In 1979, hackers attached a giant Brass Rat, MIT’s iconic class ring, to the statue’s finger (Peterson 181-182). MIT students also dressed the John Harvard Statue in a leg cast after Yale trounced Harvard in a 1990 football game; a Spartan helmet and futuristic rifle for the 2009 Halo 3 video game release; and a full wardrobe of MIT logo apparel for no special occasion. Because adorning architecture with humorous accessories or collegiate paraphernalia requires little effort or planning and there are so many susceptible sculptures around the MIT campus, such as the Alchemist, Harvard’s lack of pranks on the MIT campus confirms an apathy that classifies this hacking-rivalry as one-sided. Harvard students can spar with barbed comments, but they won’t travel up the Charles to take practical revenge on the MIT campus. A brief 1995 episode epitomizes Harvard students’ apathy. It took an MIT facilities employee (who was a Harvard graduate) to strike MIT’s campus with a hack, inserting a brass H into a replacement sidewalk (Peterson 179). Of course, MIT retaliated brilliantly and immediately with the installation of a brass H with a beaver gnawing on it on the sidewalk outside the Great Dome (Peterson 179).
If Harvard has acted the part of apathetic rival, dragged in as an only half-hearted participant, Caltech is the eager opposite, launching the first salvo in the cross-country hacking skirmishes between the two technological institutes. Caltech struck first in 1984, hacking the scoreboard of the nationally televised Rose Bowl football game to make it appear that Caltech was trouncing MIT rather than UCLA beating Illinois (Mohammad 1). What were their motives? How significant was it to them? I couldn’t have found a more emphatic answer, as I open a scanned version of The California Tech. In the left corner is “Caltech 38” and in the right corner is “MIT 9”; both are typed in massive bold font and boxed, dominating the page as only the Super Bowl score does on Sports Illustrated‘s front cover (Mohammad 1). A full-page photograph of the scoreboard from the hill on which the remote hackers stationed themselves and the title “Tech Scores Big at Rose Bowl” accompany the emphatic header (Mohammad 2). The orchestrators mention nothing of their choice of MIT as the losing score, as if MIT is the obvious candidate to the Caltech students and faculty, but what is obvious is that it was a big deal and that the hacking rivalry was initiated by Caltech.
I return to the two college newspaper archives. Come on MIT, get them! 1984, nothing. 1985, nothing. MIT did not respond, and Caltech struck again in 2005 at MIT’s Campus Preview Weekend (CPW). Disguised Caltech students passed out 400 t-shirts to accepted pre-freshmen at the CPW academic and athletics fairs that had MIT on the front and “because not everyone can go to Caltech” on the back (Fu 1). They also filled Lobby 7 with 100 orange balloons and a miniature CIT blimp, covered the word “Massachusetts” with a banner that read “That Other” on the Building 7 MIT inscription, planted five-foot-tall inflatable palm trees on the Great Dome, and flashed the letters C-A-L-T-E-C-H onto the Green Building with a green laser (Seigel 2). The Caltech pranksters even created a website displaying the score of the prank battle–Caltech 6, MIT 1–encouraging retribution (Seigel 2). MIT hackers swiftly changed the banner to read “The Only,” and engineered a harness to retrieve the miniature blimp floating in Lobby 7, counteractions that confirmed a two-sided hacking war (Wang 14).
Why were the pranks conducted during CPW? Caltech put on a mocking display of MIT in front of MIT’s pre-freshmen, potential enrollees–what might be interpreted as a humiliating message of superiority. However, this does not appear to be the motive of the Caltech pranksters. Caltech sophomore Todd Gingrich claimed, “We thought that if we could do something to MIT it would create some energy around here,” and MIT hackers told reporters that the Caltech students explicitly encouraged them to retaliate (Elton). Caltech pranksters did not seek to humiliate its tech rival. They wanted to reignite a hacking war for the mutual benefit of both institutes. Confirming that hacking is embraced by all levels of the MIT community, Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones agreed, deeming the pranks “hilarious” and responding that “CPW was a perfect time, as it helps spark interest in the hacking culture at MIT” (Wang 14). Both sides seem to be on the same page about the motive: reviving rivalry. While I would expect any institution to angrily expel and publically ignore the mischief, MIT orchestrated a playful and clever retribution. This speaks a lot about MIT’s character. Although often the instigator, MIT can take a taste of its own medicine and even rise up to reciprocate.
A year later, MIT struck back with a bang. Under the clever disguise of Howe & Ser Moving Company, five to seven MIT students hitched Caltech’s iconic Fleming Cannon to the back of a pickup truck, provided fake work order documents to campus security guards, and loaded the cannon into a rented moving truck for a cross-country journey (Hiszpanski 1 and 5). On April 6, 2006, the cannon appeared on MIT’s campus with a massive gold brass rat, MIT’s iconic class ring, on the barrel (Vogt 1). The Caltech victims were not going to back down. Twenty-three Fleming House residents flew out to Boston and met with seven local alumni, with whom they even plotted a helicopter extraction of the stolen cannon (Peterson 12).
MIT peacefully returned the cannon to Caltech on April 9, ending another back-and-forth episode in the MIT-Caltech rivalry. In this episode, the bar was raised, as pranks on both sides required larger hacking groups (24 MIT students and 23 Caltech students) with more intricate coordination and greater engineering feats, namely cross-continental cannon removal and giant, gold ring construction and potential helicopter extraction. Caltech got the retaliation they asked for in 2005 and some more. The cannon heist was directly motivated by the rivalry, according to an anonymous MIT hacker who claimed, “Caltech issued the challenge last year…and then we took the cannon in response…Now the ball is in their court” (Elton). The MIT students’ response highlights the inspiring one-up nature of this playful rather than bitter rivalry. Caltech President of the Associated Students, Todd Gingrich, agreed: “[The hack] suggests the prospect of a back and forth thing in the future, which is something many Caltech students are excited about” (Vogt 11).Side by side, the 2005 and 2006 CPW rival hacks reveal a meticulous attention to detail, which sheds light on and confirms the motives of ingenuity and school pride. The CPW hacks also suggest that MIT has found a capable and interested rival in Caltech, which has proved its ability to match the ingenuity and enthusiasm of MIT.
In its rivalry with Harvard, MIT is the instigator. It is a culture war of sorts, in which Harvard and MIT have rigid, well-defined senses of their own and each others’ characters–the well-rounded, traditional, responsible, favored oldest brother, Harvard, and his singly focused, contriving, nocturnal, underdog younger brother, MIT, striving for more attention. On the other hand, the MIT-Caltech hacking rivalry seems to be a reciprocal struggle between similar cultures competing for the pinnacle of superior technological ingenuity. Both rivalries provide venues for social cohesion on various levels of the MIT community. Small groups of hackers bond over the intensive planning and execution. The MIT faculty and student body proudly unite over the public displays of engineering excellence and intense school spirit.
Berman, Cindy. “Techie Antics.” The Harvard Crimson 22 November 1982. Web.
Elton, Catherine. “Comedy on Campus: MIT Takes on Caltech for Prank Distinction.” The Boston Globe 19 April 2006. Web.
Fu, Meng-Meng. “Caltech 6, MIT 1.” The California Tech 11 April 2005: 1. Print.
Hiszpanski, Anna. “Flemming Cannon Gone.” The California Tech. 3 April 2006: 1,5. Print.
Konrad, Alexander. “Harvard-Yale’s Third Party.” The Harvard Crimson 21 November 2008. Web.
Marshall, Jessica. “Student Leaders at MIT Claim Harvard as Colony.” The Harvard Crimson 21 April 1982. Web.
Mohammad, Hossein. “Tech Scores Big at Rose Bowl.” The California Tech 6 January 1984: 1,2. Print.
Pentacoff, Chris. “Huge Ego at Harvard-Yale Game.” IHTFP Hack Gallery. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Web. 5 November 2012.
Peterson, T.F. Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2011.
Schwarz, Katie. “Saturday’s Score: MIT 1, Harvard-Yale 0.” The Tech 23 November 1982: 1,8. Print.
Seigel, Alex. “Tales from the Snow-Covered Trenches: A Techer’s Account of Card-Readers, Campus Cops, and Courage.” The California Tech 11 April 2005: 2. Print.
Shim, Katherine. “ZBT Launches Rocket at Harvard-Yale Game.” The Tech 20 November 1990: 1,2. Print.
Stone, Joanna. “Hack Brings Yard Plate to Campus.” The Tech 14 September 1990: 2.
Vogt, Marissa. “Hackers Have Blast With Caltech Cannon.” The Tech 7 April 2006: 1,11. Print.
Wang, Hanhan. “Caltech Pranks CPW; MIT Hackers Reply.” The Tech 12 April 2005: 1,14. Print.