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Keyser describes his top five hacks

During his presentation on hacks and history at the freshman convocation, Samuel Jay Keyser, Professor of Linguistics Emeritus, showed clips of a local TV program, Chronicle, which ran a feature story about hacks at MIT.

"Hackers are for MIT what football is for the Big 10," Professor Keyser told the reporter in that program.

The videotape included photos of a hack launched on President Charles M. Vest's first day on the job. The hackers camouflaged the entrance to his office with a large bulletin board to confuse the new president, who took it in stride, calling the joke "great fun."

The most famous hack in recent history was the Campus Police cruiser with flashing red lights parked atop the Great Dome on the last day of classes in 1994. That cruiser -- complete with a box of Dunkin Donuts in the car; a yellow, diamond-shaped sign in the back window that proclaimed "I break for donuts"; and license plate number IHTFP, is Professor Keyser's personal favorite. The day it occurred, the hack found its way onto national TV news.

The most enduring of hacks is the marking of the Harvard Bridge on Massachusetts Avenue into smoots (1958). Oliver Reed Smoot Jr. (SB 1962), a 5-foot-7-inch undergraduate, was laid out end to end across the entire bridge to get the final length of 364.4 smoots plus one ear. Each smoot was marked with a painted line and every 10 smoots indicated with a number. When the bridge was rebuilt in the 1980s, the Cambridge police requested that the smoots remain because they use them to indicate precise locations in accident reports.

Professor Keyser said he's partial to dome hacks, and gave the following list of his top five favorites:

  • ������The police cruiser on the dome (1994).
  • ������The phone booth on the dome (1982). According to Professor Keyser, when a campus patrolman approached the hack to check it out, the telephone in the booth rang.
  • ������A large balloon that inflated on the playing field during the Harvard-Yale football game (1982). Two other hacks appeared at that same game: the MIT marching band, dressed like the Harvard band, took the field in a formation spelling "MIT"; and unknowing Harvard fans raised placards, thinking they were spelling "Beat Yale," when in fact they spelled -- you guessed it -- "MIT."
  • ������The Disappearing President's Office (1990).
  • Remote-controlled blackboards in Rm 10-250 (1981). Two students used a remote-controlled device to move the bulletin boards up and down each time their calculus professor approached the board. The board in the top left corner was the only portion that remained stationary. So, in true MIT fashion, the professor continued his lecture using only that portion, Professor Keyser said.

For more information on MIT hacks, see the web site at or the book The Journal of the Institute for Hacks, TomFoolery, and Pranks at MIT, also known as The Journal of IHTFP.

A version of this article appeared in the September 1, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 44, Number 4).

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