The First Hacker

The inexorable advance in connectivity, linking equipment used daily by billions of people, has led “Information” to the top of modern society’s value chain. Data is the raw material of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the most precious commodity that individuals, universities, industries, governments, and organizations possess. As we have previously discussed, we are moving towards a future in which the production, transmission, and storage of a growing volume of data is unavoidable.

Companies exchange information daily about processes, patents, inventions, surveys, customers, markets, strategies, layoffs, and promotions. Our digital DNA — passwords, preferences, purchase history, favorite shows, financial situation, photos, videos, documents, presentations — are spread across a worldwide multibillion-dollar infrastructure in a complex system of hardware and software. Therefore, protecting such data — for security and privacy reasons — assumes a central role in our interconnected and globalized society, completely dependent as it is on an uninterrupted and reliable information flow.

The history of unauthorized entry into systems (known commonly as hacks) started more than a hundred years ago, when the electromagnetic transfer of information — one of the pioneering technologies developed to interconnect segments of society — was still in its early days. In yet another irony of the history of science, one of the world’s first hackers was an inventor and professional magician: Englishman Nevil Maskelyne (1863–1924).

One summer day in 1903, Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937) was in Poldhu, in Cornwall, England, getting ready to send a wireless long-distance transmission of Morse code to the auditorium of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, in London, around 450 km (280 mi) away.

Marconi radio station at Poldhu. Source: Project Gutenberg e-book The Cornwall Coast, by Arthur L. Salmon

Marconi was one of the pioneers of the development of applications for radio waves, which are one of the many types of electromagnetic radiation found in the universe (such as microwaves, infrared, and x-rays). This radiation, which is produced by objects with an electric charge, is one of the four basic forces of nature, together with gravity (which determines that objects with mass or energy attract each other), weak force (present among subatomic particles, such as quarks and leptons), and strong force (which is basically responsible for keeping atoms together).

But before Marconi could send his demonstration message, the team in London received another message: the word rats, repeated several times, followed by excerpts from Shakespeare that had been modified to insult and provoke Marconi.

The hacker completed his transmission just before Marconi’s transmission was to take place, and Marconi’s went off without any further hitches. But since one of the main advantages promised by the new technology was the privacy of messages, which was underscored in an interview between Marconi and the English newspaper the St. James’s Gazette (founded in 1880 and merged into the Evening Standard in 1905), the hack put the premise in question. A few days later the London newspaper The Times (founded in 1785) published a letter from the architect of the prank, Englishman Nevil Maskelyne (1863–1924). Interestingly enough, Maskelyne oversaw an important project undertaken by human computers to make the determination of longitude at sea easier (through the calculation of tables of lunar distances).

In his 2001 book Wireless, Sungook Hong explains that Maskelyne, a magician with a particular interest in wireless communication (which was useful for his tricks), like so many other inventors, had stumbled upon the generic patents applied for by Marconi, which were meant to prevent others from making developments in his areas of interest. Obviously, Maskelyne was not Marconi’s biggest fan. In his letter to The Times, he justified the hack as something that had been done “for the public good,” with the aim of exposing and correcting the security flaws of this type of communication — a justification still used today by hackers around the world.

Maskelyne had been hired two years earlier by the Eastern Telegraph Company, which managed the submarine cables that connected the United Kingdom to Indonesia, India, Africa, South America, and Australia, and which could have seen its business simply disappear with the emergence of the wireless transmission that Marconi was working on. In fact, scientific progress can dramatically impact even well-established businesses (remember Blockbuster and Kodak).

This hack “model” is just one of several types developed over the last hundred years. Next time, we will discuss several techniques in which unauthorized access to computer systems can be obtained. See you then.