Hidden in “plane” sight
Hacking doesn’t have to stop after graduation
I love MIT, having spent the entire decade of the sixties here. After graduating in 1963 (Course 6), I stayed on to get a Ph.D. in 1970, and I’ve remained active as president of the class of 1963. Shortly after I retired in 2003, at the end of a 33-year career in electrical engineering and computer science, I started working as a volunteer mentor for MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service (“VMS” – see http://vms.mit.edu/). As a result, I find myself at MIT several times a month.
A number of years ago, I noticed that a display case I passed frequently was empty, and it remained so on quite a few subsequent visits. I was surprised to see it unused, because it’s in a prime location, at the east-campus end of the “Infinite Corridor”. A plaque identified the case as belonging to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. This made me think of a way to comment on its lack of use.
Given the long-standing tradition of hacks at MIT, I decided to communicate by putting my comment into the case itself. Its sliding glass doors were locked, but of course to an MIT graduate, that’s hardly a major obstacle.
Back at home, I created the sign I had in mind. I don’t remember the exact wording I used, this all having taken place a few years ago. But because the display case belonged to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, I wrote something like this: “Model of a B-2 ‘Stealth’ bomber, made out of our newly developed invisible material”
I printed the sign on a piece of tag stock, and folded it in half. I taped a strip of paper underneath, running between the front and the back, to determine how far it sprung open, in an upside-down V shape. But it could also be folded flat, which was important, because that’s how I got it into the case. In addition to the sign, I made a tool out of a piece of light-weight cardboard, with a forked shape cut into its end to allow me to push on the edge of the sign.
On a subsequent visit to MIT, I found the display case still empty. Waiting until nobody was around, I pressed my sign flat, and used the improvised cardboard tool to push it into the case, through the narrow gap between the two sliding glass doors. Success! Once inside, the sign sprung open and remained standing as I pulled the cardboard pusher back out through the gap.
From time to time (generally whenever I came in for a VMS meeting), I checked to see if the sign was still there. It remained in place for a while, but eventually someone removed it. Nevertheless, I think my message was received, because not long thereafter, the Department of Materials Science and Engineering put some sort of exhibit into the case, and there’s been something in it ever since.
My action wasn’t very impressive as far as MIT hacks go. But while I don’t think it will make it into the annals of hacking, it had an objective, and it seemed to be effective. Also, in accord with the MIT hacking ethic, I hope it was perceived as humorous, and it caused no damage or injury.
This wasn’t my first hack. In 1960, I participated in a Robert Ratner hack, which hung a large icicle on Baker House. This was reported in the 50th issue of The Tech, Volume 79, January 15, 1960, in a front-page article with the headline, “Giant Icicle at Baker House Draws National Press Attention.” I’m happy to see that I’m still hacking after all these years.
Now that this story has appeared in The Tech, the Department of Materials Science and Engineering will know who created the sign. I’d love to hear their side of the story.