MIT’s infamous student pranks
by Sarah Buckley


The word “hack” originated at MIT. While it is now most often associated with illegally tapping into telecommunications systems, the term was invented to describe any clever and inspired way of accomplishing a difficult feat.

Most people know MIT as the stomping grounds for some of the world’s most gifted intellectuals and budding science superstars. But what many don’t know is that, for decades, MIT students have been moonlighting as pranksters who will stop at nothing to direct a few rays of limelight away from the college’s strictly scientific achievements…and perhaps spark a good laugh in the process.

It all began in 1928 when a group known as Dorm Goblin managed to thread a 35-foot telegraph pole through a dormitory. But while telegraph poles no longer serve as props, MIT students continue to perpetrate a variety of imaginative and witty stunts, known as “hacks,” that are nearly always safe, mostly inoffensive, and incredibly intricate, in accordance with the unofficial MIT hackers’ code of ethics. Most importantly, they leave MIT and the community at large wondering “whodunit?”

In November 1982, during the big Harvard-Yale football game, a remote-controlled weather balloon bearing MIT’s initials emerged from the Harvard Stadium field near the 50-yard line, inflated, then burst into a storm of pinkish powder.

In 1994, in what became the most famous (and beloved) hack in recent history, students mounted a replica of an MIT Campus Police car atop the school’s Great Dome. The shell of the Chevrolet Cavalier—painted to look exactly like a campus cruiser (cleverly numbered “pi”)—sported flashing lights and a dummy dressed as a uniformed officer, complete with a toy gun, a parking ticket reading “no permit for this location,” and a box of donuts. The AP newswire-worthy prank was reported in papers from California to Korea.

The Great Dome has played host to many other hacks as well. Last December, it was festooned with a replica of the Wright Brothers’ plane in honor of the 100th anniversary of the pioneering duo’s historic flight.

Though MIT by no means encourages these shenanigans, school administrators say that a tasteful and well-constructed hack is no reason to get up in arms. In fact, a few weeks after that weather balloon exploded onto the field of the Harvard-Yale game, then-MIT president Paul Gray joked that he wished he’d been part of that prank. Says Robert Sales, associate director of the MIT News Office, “It’s just a part of our culture.”

Visit the MIT Hack Gallery at hacks.mit.edu.