To ease freshman into the intensive world of MIT, Stephen C. Ehrmann, class president of 1971, completely rewrote the student handbook, formerly known as The Social Beaver. Originally an impersonal list of local services and conveniences, the revised “How to Get Around MIT” was a casual, easy-to-read record, “a survival guide written by students, for students.”
Colloquially known as HowToGAMIT, this student-only publication contains the only written record of MIT slang, originally compiled from Ehrmann’s circle of friends and associates. Successive editors of HowToGAMIT have adjusted definitions according to the popular usage of their time, and modifications of culturally rich words like hack act as windows into MIT’s history.
The original 1969 definition of hack listed “a trick, prank, parlay” as the first and foremost usage. This meaning has not changed much over time, as MIT remains famous for its colorful history of elaborate pranks. In its founding years, MIT was small, new, and scandalously unpopular. The faculty couldn’t afford the drastic disciplinary actions that Harvard imposed. Perhaps in recognition of their teachers’ leniency, the creative engineering students sculpted their mischief into an art, defining a very specific kind of prank that was unequivocally bound by a sense of responsibility and the aspiration to do no harm.
The revised handbook lists one or two examples of a “fine hack” for interested newcomers to look up, switched in and out over the years according to the editors’ whims. Getting elected as the president of the Undergraduate Association has been a permanent example since HowToGAMIT’s first publication. Transitory references have included welding a streetcar onto its tracks with thermite (unfortunately unverified) and the well-known placement of a giant collapsible nipple on the Great Dome in 1979. In 1999, “having a balloon pop up out of the field in the middle of the Hahvahd-Yale football game,” a classic 1982 hack praised for its difficulty, humor, and harmlessness, became a fixture to this day.
The secondary definition of hack, originally recorded in 1969, was synonymous with goofing off, encompassing any form of procrastination. A separate section in HowtoGAMIT introduced in 1980 detailed how to hack roofs and tunnels by means of unsanctioned exploration. This probably began narrowing the definition to a specific activity, for by 2002 this item specifically referred to exploring the steam tunnels, air vents, and other “ordinarily inaccessible or unknown places” on campus.
Campus-specific phenomena also gave rise to extensions of the definition. In 1971, for example, hack could mean applying “oneself very earnestly to something. Example: a computer hacker. Also connotes fanaticism.” This likely refers in part to the Tech Model Railroad Club, which has been credited for the rise of computer hackers. Members had begun hacking with physical circuits, creating clever automated systems that could be activated with a flick of a switch or a simple phone call. The members of this club were seen as being so obsessed with their work that they would continue engineering and tinkering outside of assigned work.
When these electronic hackers applied their obsessively honed skills to computers, they eventually caught the public’s attention—and scandal. Hack entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1984 as a verb meaning “to gain unauthorized access to (computer files, etc., or information held in one).” While MIT saw well-executed computer hacking as an extension of its explorative, mischievous culture, the world-at-large came to view every instance of hacking as an intentionally malicious invasion of privacy.
This stark contrast probably prompted the editors of HowtoGAMIT to drop a little-used definition for hack that had appeared in 1971: “harass somebody, whether for fun or maliciously.” By 1999, this usage had fallen out of style, perhaps because true MIT hackers wanted to differentiate themselves from malicious “crackers,” who do not adhere to the MIT ideals of creative, harmless exploration.
That MIT’s history became embodied in the unofficial definition of the slang word hack is somewhat appropriate, given that HowtoGAMIT itself was a playful experiment. Though incidentally informative, Ehrmann had designed it to amuse and distract students from the stress of homework, to inform them of activities they didn’t even know that they needed. It gave them the reason and know-how to hack.