The Tech Model
Railroad Club

The first computer wizards who called themselves hackers started underneath a toy train layout at MIT’s Building 20

Steven Levy
Nov 21, 2014 · Unlisted

Just why Peter Samson was wandering around in Building 26 in the middle of the night is a matter that he would find difficult to explain. Some things are not spoken. If you were like the people whom Peter Samson was coming to know and befriend in this, his freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the winter of 1958–59, no explanation would be required.

Gronking the Layout.

So he tried to learn more about the field, built machines of his own, entered science project competitions and contests, and went to the place that people of his ilk aspired to: MIT.

Tech Model Railway Club, 1960.

If you put hundreds of wires through the holes in a certain order, you would get something that looked like a rat’s nest but would fit into this electromechanical machine and alter its personality. It could do what you wanted it to do.

But to certain students this was no challenge at all. To these youngsters, classmates were perceived in a sort of friendly haze: maybe they would be of assistance in the consuming quest to find out how things worked, and then to master them.

Pettengill Circle 1986.

The Tech Model Railroad Club awarded its members a key to the clubroom after they logged forty hours of work on the layout. Freshman Midway had been on a Friday. By Monday, Peter Samson had his key.

While someone might call a clever connection between relays a “mere hack,” it would be understood that, to qualify as a hack, the feat must be imbued with innovation, style, and technical virtuosity.

McCarthy was one of a very few people working in an entirely new form of scientific inquiry with computers. The volatile and controversial nature of his field of study was obvious from the very arrogance of the name that McCarthy had bestowed upon it: Artificial Intelligence.

John McCarthy. Chuck Painter / Stanford News Service. © Stanford University.

So the practice of taking a computer program and trying to cut off instructions without affecting the outcome came to be called “program bumming,” and you would often hear people mumbling things like “Maybe I can bum a few instructions out and get the octal correction card loader down to three cards instead of four.”

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