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Hackers turn dome into R2D2

MIT students, who couldn't insulate themselves from the Star Wars hysteria even while studying for finals, joined the hype Monday by converting the Great Dome into an oversized replica of the droid R2D2.

MIT Campus Police discovered the red, white, blue and black lightweight mesh fabric panels representing the robot's sensors and lights on the dome during routine patrol at 4:18am. At about the same time, the unofficial MIT Hack Hotline spread the news to selected members of the community by phone.

Assistant Safety and Environmental Officer David M. Barber received a memo that described the hack's safety features, how it works, and how the panels are constructed and mounted, as well as directions on how to remove the cables. The memo, addressed to "Imperial Drones," is signed "Rebel Scum." A dozen donuts were also left at the scene for Mr. Barber and Gary F. Cunha of the Department of Facilities, who inspected the hack together.

"It's one of the more professional hacks I've seen from a structural and safety standpoint," said Mr. Barber. "They went to great pains to protect the dome. The material is very light and the wind will blow through it, not billow up behind. It is colorfast and won't run in the event of rain. The whole thing is very well done."

The hack will be left intact until Thursday at 8am, weather and rigging deterioration permitting. The much-anticipated Star Wars prequel, Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace, opens Wednesday night.

Hacks are pranks or practical jokes that challenge the perpetrators and amuse the MIT community (and sometimes the rest of the world). The people responsible are seldom identified. The stunt continues the MIT tradition of hacking, perhaps best exemplified five years ago when what looked like an MIT Campus Police cruiser appeared at the top of the Great Dome.

The fake police cruiser, complete with a dummy dressed as a uniformed officer, flashing lights, a toy gun and a box of donuts, appeared on May 9, 1994. The car turned out to be the metal outer shell of a Chevrolet Cavalier attached to a multi-piece wooden frame, all carefully assembled on the roof over the course of one night.

Local TV stations covered the police car hack and the segment was picked up by network news broadcasts. The story appeared in newspapers in California, Israel, Korea and points between. It was probably the most successful hack ever perpetrated.

Other memorable hacks from the past:
Marking off the length of the Harvard Bridge in 5-foot, 7-inch segments known as Smoots, celebrating the stature of Lambda Chi Alpha pledge Oliver Smoot Jr. The Smoot markers, first painted in 1958, have been renewed regularly for 41 years as the paint fades. (The bridge measures 364 Smoots and one ear.)
A weather balloon popped up at midfield and self-destructed during the 1982 Harvard-Yale game. Members of Delta Kappa Epsilon took credit for this prank.
An MIT banner shot out of the sod and draped around a goalpost as Yale prepared to kick a field goal during the 1990 game at Harvard.
On Oct. 15, 1990, Charles M. Vest's first day as MIT's president, the door to his office was hidden behind a poster-covered bulletin board carefully constructed to fit into the entryway. A bottle of champagne was placed in the office. "My first major policy is that we're going to keep that," President Vest said. "The first time issues get hot on campus, we'll pull it out.'"
The Oscar won by Good Will Hunting on March 24, 1998 was celebrated by arranging the lighting in the Green Building to depict a 16-story, 185-foot-tall image of the statuette.
On April Fool's Day 1998, a story appeared on the MIT home page announcing the acquisition of the Institute by the Walt Disney Co., with an illustration of Mickey Mouse pointing to the Dome decorated with mouse ears. "I knew it was a hack as soon as I saw the price," said MIT spokesman Ken Campbell. "Only $6.9 billion? Much too cheap!"

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 31).

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