A police car with its lights flashing balanced on top of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Great Dome. A balloon reading “MIT” appearing out of the ground, midfield, during the 1982 Harvard-Yale football game. A perfectly recreated upside-down lounge room, complete with billiard table and snoozing cat, installed on the underside of an arch during MIT’s 2010 Campus Preview Weekend. These “hacks,” as they are known in MIT lore, showcase a combination of meticulous science and anti-authoritarian whimsy, both of which are synonymous with the university. MIT pranks have been memorialized in various sanctioned galleries around campus as an integral part of the university’s history, and rightly so. Although the terminology and ethos of the hacks were only formalized after World War II, pranks at MIT have been around since the university opened in 1865.
While writing my novel The Technologists, a thriller about the first students at MIT, I looked for early recorded pranks to incorporate into my story. The history of hacks published by MIT Press, Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT, reaches back to an incident in the 1870s in which students sprinkled iodide of nitrogen over the grounds of a military drill, causing explosions under classmates' boots. But as something of a purist about firsts, I sought out earlier examples of the college's signature pranks including, if possible, the inaugural one. Was there a Big Bang of MIT pranks?
As I chased the answer, I realized that the students’ shenanigans provided not just a chronicle of cleverness, but also shed some light on the history of scientific education in America. The military drills were natural draws for mischief during the era of its first classes. Massachusetts granted the institution land in the newly developed Back Bay of Boston for its original building and in return mandated that its students learn military maneuvers. The grant, part of a federal initiative, was a coup for what was at the time a highly experimental college promoting the outré notion of laboratory teaching, but that did not make the required drills welcome to the students. In one prank contemporaneous with the sprinkled nitrogen triiodide, students dropped a “giant torpedo” from the fourth floor to surprise their marching classmates gathering in the main hall. This sounds dangerous, and although the student memoirist spared more details, it must have been impressively well-planned not to cause any harm, presaging one of the unofficial rules of the modern hacks.
An even earlier recorded prank target was MIT’s first professor of mechanical engineering, William Watson. Watson was called “Squirty” by the students for his enthusiastic handling of chemical-wash bottles, and he was teased for the dapper style of dress he had picked up when studying science in Paris. Robert Hallowell Richards, a member of MIT’s first class, remembered this practical joke: “Professor Watson arranged a blackboard that was lowered and raised by means of a rope and a cast-iron weight, operated over a pulley. The first time he pulled the board down, the weight bobbed up over the top. This was too much for the conspirators. They stole into the room between classes and expended much artistic labor on the surface of the weight. The next time Watson pulled the blackboard down, up shot the weight, pleasantly decorated for the occasion with a picture of a monkey and the inscription, ‘Squirty Watson.’ ”
Both the torpedo and the blackboard pranks required some skill in engineering, but after reviewing student diaries, letters, faculty records, and alumni notes, the earliest cluster of pranks I can identify—between the years 1865 to 1868, when the first cohort of young men matriculated and graduated—form a surprisingly tame list. It seems impossible to isolate a single incident as the first, but the ones I traced back the farthest include moving a safe to block a stairway; bringing a monkey and hand organ into a hall (another ploy to annoy “Squirty” Watson); a bell being positioned to ring over the head of the professor of foreign languages; and the theft of a key, one possibly needed by the faculty or staff to open one of the laboratories or the large lecture hall, which was thrown down a well.