MIT has a long tradition of "hacks," or clever and elegant pranks showcasing the playful and inventive spirit of MIT. Hacks are performed by hackers, MIT students who safely and stealthily execute the pranks according to an informal code of ethics. These ethics, loosely stated, assert that hacks must do no damage to property or any person, must be safe, and must provide joy or amusement to those who experience the hack.
A (sporadically updated) gallery of past hacks can be found here. Some of the most famous hacks include:
Police car on the Dome
On the final day of classes in May 1994, the city of Boston awoke to see an MIT Campus Police cruiser on top of the Great Dome. The car came complete with flashing lights and a cruiser number, π.
In actuality, the police car was the shell of a Chevrolet Cavalier attached to a multi-piece wooden frame, all carefully assembled on the roof over the course of one night. Perhaps as a nod to the very limited parking around campus, the car had been issued a parking violation reading "no permit for this location."
The police car hack received television and newspaper coverage around the world, as far away as Korea and Israel.
The Great Droid
On the first day of final exam week in 1999 (two days before the much-anticipated release of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace), the Great Dome was transformed into R2-D2.
Hackers, noticing the similarities between the hemispherical Great Dome and the head of the famous rebel droid, converted the dome into a likeness of R2-D2. Using colored fabric panels decorated with paint and burlap, the hackers carefully recreated Artoo's equipment. For the hologram projector, hackers used a tent protruding from the side of the dome, painted in metallic colors.
The hackers left detailed schematics and disassembly instructions for the Hack Removal Team assigned to inspect the hackers' work on the dome. The instructions were addressed to the "Imperial Drones," and signed "Rebel Scum."
The Harvard-Yale Game
The annual football game between Yale and Harvard Universities has been a frequent target of MIT hackers. The most memorable of these hacks took place at the 1982 meeting of the two Ivy League universities.
During a timeout after a touchdown in the first quarter, an enormous weather balloon emerged from underneath the turf at the 46-yard line. The balloon had MIT printed on it in large letters, and eventually exploded in a burst of powder.
An ingenious deployment mechanism had been designed by the MIT hackers and buried beneath the field prior to the game. A remote trigger allowed the deployment of the hack to occur during a break in play.
While some Harvard-Yale hacks have been foiled before deployment, such as in 1948 and 1978, other attempts have met with great success, such as in 1990.
In the second half of the game that year, a rocket erupted from the sod at the goal line, shooting over the goal post an 8 1/2 by 3 1/2 foot banner with the letters "MIT" on both sides. The mechanism was activated by about 480 feet of wire that ran underneath the field and connected to two metal bleachers of the stadium. The rocket was set off just as Yale prepared to kick a field goal.
The next day the Boston Herald ran the headline "MIT 1-Harvard-Yale 0; Tech Pranksters Steal the Show"
The Caltech Cannon
In the spring of 2006, a 130 year-old, 1.7 ton cannon was moved from the California Institute of Technology by the MIT hacker "moving company," Howe & Ser Moving Co. The cannon reappeared on MIT's campus on the morning of the first day of MIT's annual Campus Preview Weekend (CPW), adorned with a 24 karat gold-plated brass rat.
In the early morning of March 28th, Howe & Ser arrived at Caltech to remove the cannon. They were confronted by Caltech security, but after presenting a fabricated work order, the movers were allowed to proceed. The cannon was then carefully shipped 3,000 miles across the country, appearing just in time for 900 prospective MIT students to see it at CPW.
At the end of the weekend, Caltech students arrived on campus to attempt to secretly reclaim the cannon. However, their attempt at a stealthy recovery failed - MIT students, who had detected the Caltech students' mission, greeted them with a barbecue party in honor of their retaking of the cannon.
The hack attracted international press attention.