One of the things I celebrate in Mesh is hacking – the real, original version of hacking – along with the current version celebrated within cyberpunk. What I find interesting today is how, most kids have no idea what the history of hacking really is. Let’s spend a few moments talking briefly about that history, and then you’ll have a better sense of how Mesh fits into that history.
Before we start diving into the details, let’s do some housekeeping: This essay is by no means an exhaustive list of computer hacking incidents, nor is it meant to masquerade as an InfoSec white paper. I haven’t found too many places where old-school hacking is connected to modern cybersecurity, so I decided to write something up for myself and other interested readers.
The Olden Days
To begin with, did you know that hacking dates back to 1903? It’s true! Magician and inventor Nevil Maskelyne pranked John Ambrose Fleming’s demonstration of Guglielmo Marconi’s ‘secure wireless telegraphy technology.’ Maskelyne figured out how it worked and then he took over, sending insulting Morse code messages through the auditorium’s projector.
This tradition of science-based pranks continued, notably in the 1930s when Ken Wadleigh, who later in life became a dean at MIT, and 4 others welded a streetcar to metal rails by first distracting the motorman and then setting off thermite bombs to weld the wheels in place.
It wasn’t until 1955 that the word itself ‘hacking’ came into use in the meeting minutes of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club: “Mr. Eccles requests that anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing.”
So how did we get from model railroading to cyberpunk? Let’s continue the journey:
Hacking in the 60s, 70s, and 80s
According to this article: “The term hacker was accepted as a positive label slapped onto computer gurus who could push computer systems beyond the defined limits. Hackers emerged out of the artificial intelligence labs at MIT in the 1960s. A network known as ARPANET was founded by the Department of Defense as a means to link government offices. In time, ARPANET evolved into what is today known as the Internet.”
But later, as technology merged with counter-culture, hacking became an avenue for breaking the law. “In the 1970s, “Captain Crunch” devised a way to make free long distance calls and groups of phone hackers, later dubbed ‘phreakers‘ emerged.” Kevin Mitnick broke into his first major computer system in 1979, when he penetrated the Ark, the computer system Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) used for developing their RSTS/E operating system software.
During that period of time, hacking wasn’t necessarily considered a bad thing. In fact, some viewed hacking as ‘ a kind of sportive, but very effective, debugging that was often repeated in the evolution of APL systems.’ However, like punk culture, hacking culture started to take on a life of its own, simultaneously creating and feeding off its own public perception. Books like ‘Neuromancer’ envinced this brilliant future in which hacking was a method of fighting back against the faceless dystopia. ‘War Games’ thrilled kids and terrified adults – what if a teenager could accidentally start a nuclear war from his bedroom?
Through the Eighties, hacking continued to grow and change. Hackers broke into places like the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Another hacker broke into AT&T’s billing systems and changed telephone rates to mess with people’s telephone bills. The hacking club Cult of the Dead Cow formed in Lubbock, Texas. One of its members later on got into politics; his name is Beto O’Rourke.
Hackers themselves were often the cause of negative publicity. For example, one hacker in Hanover, Germany perpetrated a computer break-in to steal military secrets and sell them to the KGB. He wasn’t successful, but the year-long odyssey of his break-in, and the computer programmer who found him and eventually got the government to do something about this helped change how the United States views and handles cyberwarfare. You can read about what happened in a book called ‘The Cuckoo’s Egg.’ I have a first-edition copy of the book on my bookshelf. 🙂
This list is by no means comprehensive – there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of things that happened in those fifty years that led to the current state of hacking and hacker culture. I’m going to pause here and take up the rest of the story in Part Two. Stay tuned!
I’d like to thank the following web resources for the information that helped me write this article: