Monday, March 21, 2011

MIT’s 150th Anniversary, (and some bits of nostalgia)

Yes, that is a real building!
MIT's Stata Center
Lots of nostalgia is flowing out of Cambridge this year as MIT celebrates its 150th Birthday. Even though my husband graduated only a few years ago *ahem* we are misty eyed as we reminisce with the videos, stories, photographs and announcements. At the last MIT reunion, we were flabbergasted at the changes on campus; the new Simmons dorm that looks like it was made of legos, the barracks known as Building 20 was replaced by a wild building known as the Stata Center by the prize winning architect Frank Gehry, and even the environs in the Lechmere neighborhood were unrecognizable. Where did the warehouses and vacant lots go?

My favorite MIT stories are those about the infamous hacks. At MIT a hack is not a destructive problem designed to steal your identity or money, but a hack is an elegant, witty, inspired prank. I remember witnessing several from my undergraduate days in Cambridge. I usually rode to MIT on the #1 bus down Mass. Ave, which left me off right in front of Lobby 7, which was the usual target for hacks. Most of the hacks involved installing various things on top of the Great Dome (a cement cow from the Hilltop steakhouse, a giant R2D2, a giant nipple…). A mild hack for students was to just climb atop the famous Great Dome above Lobby 7, where there was a fantastic view of Boston and Cambridge (…ummm, so I’ve heard!) Somewhere nearby was the Tomb of the Unknown Tool, and searching for it usually involved secret stairways and tunnels.* All this merrymaking was to break up the stress of intense studying, and remembering these hacks amused the MIT students much more than any episode of “Big Bang Theory”.

We would often walk across the “Smoot Bridge” on Mass. Ave for dates in Boston. Only a regular Cambridge pedestrian or MIT student would know the story of the smoot markings along the sidewalk.** The smoots are my favorite MIT hack. However, in 1982, my husband’s senior year, the best off campus hack occurred in Harvard Stadium. The crowd watched in disbelief as a giant weather balloon grew out of the 45 yard line in the middle of the Harvard – Yale football game. MIT was painted all over the balloon.
On the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attack, early in the morning, my daughter was rowing on the Charles River with the Simmons College team, and she witnessed the greatest recent hack. A 25 foot long fire engine marked “MIT Fire Department” (complete with Dalmatian dog and flashing red lights) was on top of the Great Dome. It was clearly visible across the Charles River to the firemen meeting for a memorial ceremony on the Esplanade. As soon as she returned to the boathouse, she called her Dad to announce the new prank. Another generation strikes as hackers.

Several artifacts from great hacks, which have been going on at MIT for most of the past 150 years, were on display at the MIT Museum in the “Hall of Hacks” which was removed in 2003. Currently, some of the artifacts related to hacks are now on display in the Stata Center. Perhaps the hacking devices and photographs could be re-installed as part of the 150th Birthday party? All the alumni would appreciate it! After all, history can be fun, too!

Links for the truly curious:

The website for hacks at MIT and their history

The website for events, stories and history of MIT’s 150th Anniversary

A video of a lecture on the history of MIT hacking

The MIT Museum One of the great museums of Boston

The Journal of the Institute for Hacks, TomFoolery and Pranks at MIT, by Brian Leibowitz ’82, published by the MIT Museum, 1990 is now out of print and has been replaced by Nightwork, by T. F. Peterson, MIT Museum, 2003 which combines J. IHTFP with another earlier book, Is This the Way to Baker House?, by Ira Haverson & Tifffany Fulton-Pearson, MIT Museum, 1996. Copies are available at the MIT Coop, The MIT Press and

This giant MIT class ring was attached
to the Cal Tech cannon, stolen as a hack in 2006
*The Tomb of the Unknown Tool was a vacant space in a sub-basement dedicated to a tool (MITspeak for a nerd). It became a legendary sanctuary for hackers. Myth says that a student actually lived there. Some hackers once actually installed dorm furniture there

**for an MIT homework assignment in 1958 to measure an object with an imaginary unit of measurement, the brothers of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity used a pledge named Oliver Smoot to measure the Mass. Ave. bridge. They painted the new marks all along the sidewalk and the final measurement on the MIT side of the bridge reads “364.4 smoots plus or minus one ear”. Over the years the fraternity has repainted the markings, and even after the renovations to the bridge in the 1980s the markings remained. The Cambridge police often use the smoots in accident reports along the bridge. (There is an additional marking at the middle of the bridge painted “Halfway to Hell” where we would steal a smooch as we passed.) Coincidentally, Oliver Smoot ‘62 was the chairman for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which I found to be simply terrific serendipity. Google Earth has an option for smoots as a unit of measurement, so I suppose there must be an MIT alum on the Google staff.

All hacks are attributed to Jacky Florey or Jim Tetrazoo, to throw the trail off the true identities of the pranksters. If you try to friend either one of these guys on Facebook, you are truly gullible.

Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Well, thanks. I wasted a bunch of the morning and had way too much fun with this. Hacks must be the gift that keeps on giving.

  2. Thanks for posting this - I had forgotten how many smoots long the bridge is.