The Tech Model
The first computer wizards who called themselves hackers started underneath a toy train layout at MIT’s Building 20
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.
Wandering around the labyrinth of laboratories and storerooms, searching for the secrets of telephone switching in machine rooms, tracing paths of wires or relays in subterranean steam tunnels . . . for some, it was common behavior, and there was no need to justify the impulse, when confronted with a closed door with an unbearably intriguing noise behind it, to open the door uninvited. And then, if there was no one to physically bar access to whatever was making that intriguing noise, to touch the machine, start flicking switches and noting responses, and eventually to loosen a screw, unhook a template, jiggle some diodes and tweak a few connections. Peter Samson and his friends had grown up with a specific relationship to the world, wherein things had meaning only if you found out how they worked. And how would you go about that if not by getting your hands on them?
It was in the basement of Building 26 that Samson and his friends discovered the EAM room. Building 26 was a long glass-and-steel structure, one of MIT’s newer buildings, contrasting with the venerable pillared structures that fronted the Institute on Massachusetts Avenue. In the basement of this building void of personality, the EAM room. Electronic Accounting Machinery. A room that housed machines which ran like computers. Not many people in 1959 had even seen a computer, let alone touched one. Samson, a wiry, curly-haired redhead with a way of extending his vowels so that it would seem he was racing through lists of possible meanings of statements mid-word, had viewed computers on his visits to MIT from his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, less than thirty miles from campus. This made him a “Cambridge urchin,” one of dozens of science-crazy high schoolers in the region who were drawn, as if by gravitational pull, to the Cambridge campus. He had even tried to rig up his own computer with discarded parts of old pinball machines: they were the best source of logic elements he could find.
LOGIC ELEMENTS: the term seems to encapsulate what drew Peter Samson, son of a mill machinery repairman, to electronics. The subject made sense. When you grow up with an insatiable curiosity as to how things work, the delight you find upon discovering something as elegant as circuit logic, where all connections have to complete their loops, is profoundly thrilling. Peter Samson, who early on appreciated the mathematical simplicity of these things, could recall seeing a television show on Boston’s public TV channel, WGBH, which gave a rudimentary introduction to programming a computer in its own language. It fired his imagination: to Peter Samson, a computer was surely like Aladdin’s lamp—rub it, and it would do your bidding.
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.
The repository of the very brightest of those weird high school kids with owl-like glasses and underdeveloped pectorals who dazzled math teachers and flunked PE, who dreamed not of scoring on prom night, but of getting to the finals of the General Electric Science Fair competition. MIT, where he would wander the hallways at two o’clock in the morning, looking for something interesting, and where he would indeed discover something that would help draw him deeply into a new form of creative process, and a new lifestyle, and would put him into the forefront of a society envisioned only by a few science-fiction writers of mild disrepute. He would discover a computer that he could play with.
The EAM room which Samson had chanced on was loaded with large keypunch machines the size of squat file cabinets. No one was protecting them: the room was staffed only by day, when a select group who had attained official clearance were privileged enough to submit long manila cards to operators who would then use these machines to punch holes in them according to what data the privileged ones wanted entered on the cards. A hole in the card would represent some instruction to the computer, telling it to put a piece of data somewhere, or perform a function on a piece of data, or move a piece of data from one place to another. An entire stack of these cards made one computer program, a program being a series of instructions which yield some expected result, just as the instructions in a recipe, when precisely followed, lead to a cake. Those cards would be taken to yet another operator upstairs who would feed the cards into a “reader” that would note where the holes were and dispatch this information to the IBM 704 computer on the first floor of Building 26. The Hulking Giant.
The IBM 704 cost several million dollars, took up an entire room, needed constant attention from a cadre of professional machine operators, and required special air-conditioning so that the glowing vacuum tubes inside it would not heat up to data-destroying temperatures. When the air-conditioning broke down—a fairly common occurrence—a loud gong would sound, and three engineers would spring from a nearby office to frantically take covers off the machine so its innards wouldn’t melt. All these people in charge of punching cards, feeding them into readers, and pressing buttons and switches on the machine were what was commonly called a Priesthood, and those privileged enough to submit data to those most holy priests were the official acolytes. It was an almost ritualistic exchange.
ACOLYTE: Oh machine, would you accept my offer of information so you may run my program and perhaps give me a computation?
PRIEST: (on behalf of the machine): We will try. We promise nothing.
As a general rule, even these most privileged of acolytes were not allowed direct access to the machine itself, and they would not be able to see for hours, sometimes for days, the results of the machine’s ingestion of their “batch” of cards.
This was something Samson knew, and of course it frustrated the hell out of Samson, who wanted to get at the damn machine. For this was what life was all about.
What Samson did not know, and was delighted to discover, was that the EAM room also had a particular keypunch machine called the 407. Not only could it punch cards, but it could also read cards, sort them, and print them on listings. No one seemed to be guarding these machines, which were computers, sort of. Of course, using them would be no picnic: one needed to actually wire up what was called a plug board, a two-inch-by-two-inch plastic square with a mass of holes in it.
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.
So, without any authorization whatsoever, that is what Peter Samson set out to do, along with a few friends of his from an MIT organization with a special interest in model railroading. It was a casual, unthinking step into a science-fiction future, but that was typical of the way that an odd subculture was pulling itself up by its bootstraps and growing to underground prominence—to become a culture that would be the impolite, unsanctioned soul of computerdom. It was among the first computer hacker escapades of the Tech Model Railroad Club, or TMRC.
Peter Samson had been a member of the Tech Model Railroad Club since his first week at MIT in the fall of 1958. The first event that entering MIT freshmen attended was a traditional welcoming lecture, the same one that had been given for as long as anyone at MIT could remember. LOOK AT THE PERSON TO YOUR LEFT . . . LOOK AT THE PERSON TO YOUR RIGHT . . . ONE OF YOU THREE WILL NOT GRADUATE FROM THE INSTITUTE. The intended effect of the speech was to create that horrid feeling in the back of the collective freshman throat that signaled unprecedented dread. All their lives, these freshmen had been almost exempt from academic pressure. The exemption had been earned by virtue of brilliance. Now each of them had a person to the right and a person to the left who was just as smart. Maybe even smarter.
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.
There were enough obstacles to learning already—why bother with stupid things like brown-nosing teachers and striving for grades? To students like Peter Samson, the quest meant more than the degree.
Sometime after the lecture came Freshman Midway. All the campus organizations—special-interest groups, fraternities, and such— set up booths in a large gymnasium to try to recruit new members. The group that snagged Peter was the Tech Model Railroad Club. Its members, bright-eyed and crew-cutted upperclassmen who spoke with the spasmodic cadences of people who want words out of the way in a hurry, boasted a spectacular display of HO gauge trains they had in a permanent clubroom in Building 20. Peter Samson had long been fascinated by trains, especially subways. So he went along on the walking tour to the building, a shingle-clad temporary structure built during World War II. The hallways were cavernous, and even though the clubroom was on the second floor it had the dank, dimly lit feel of a basement.
The clubroom was dominated by the huge train layout. It just about filled the room, and if you stood in the little control area called “the notch” you could see a little town, a little industrial area, a tiny working trolley line, a papier-mache mountain, and of course a lot of trains and tracks. The trains were meticulously crafted to resemble their full-scale counterparts, and they chugged along the twists and turns of track with picture-book perfection. And then Peter Samson looked underneath the chest-high boards which held the layout. It took his breath away. Underneath this layout was a more massive matrix of wires and relays and crossbar switches than Peter Samson had ever dreamed existed. There were neat regimental lines of switches, and achingly regular rows of dull bronze relays, and a long, rambling tangle of red, blue, and yellow wires—twisting and twirling like a rainbow-colored explosion of Einstein’s hair. It was an incredibly complicated system, and Peter Samson vowed to find out how it worked.
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.
There were two factions of TMRC. Some members loved the idea of spending their time building and painting replicas of certain trains with historical and emotional value, or creating realistic scenery for the layout. This was the knife-and-paintbrush contingent, and it subscribed to railroad magazines and booked the club for trips on aging train lines. The other faction centered on the Signals and Power Subcommittee of the club, and it cared far more about what went on under the layout. This was The System, which worked something like a collaboration between Rube Goldberg and Wernher von Braun, and it was constantly being improved, revamped, perfected, and sometimes “gronked”—in club jargon, screwed up. S&P people were obsessed with the way The System worked, its increasing complexities, how any change you made would affect other parts, and how you could put those relationships between the parts to optimal use.
Many of the parts for The System had been donated by the Western Electric College Gift Plan, directly from the phone company. The club’s faculty advisor was also in charge of the campus phone system, and had seen to it that sophisticated phone equipment was available for the model railroaders. Using that equipment as a starting point, the Railroaders had devised a scheme which enabled several people to control trains at once, even if the trains were at different parts of the same track. Using dials appropriated from telephones, the TMRC “engineers” could specify which block of track they wanted control of, and run a train from there. This was done by using several types of phone company relays, including crossbar executors and step switches which let you actually hear the power being transferred from one block to another by an other-worldly chunka-chunka-chunka sound.
It was the S&P group who devised this fiendishly ingenious scheme, and it was the S&P group who harbored the kind of restless curiosity which led them to root around campus buildings in search of ways to get their hands on computers. They were lifelong disciples of a Hands-On Imperative.
Head of S&P was an upperclassman named Bob Saunders, with ruddy, bulbous features, an infectious laugh, and a talent for switch gear. As a child in Chicago, he had built a high-frequency transformer for a high school project; it was his six-foot-high version of a Tesla coil, something devised by an engineer in the 1800s which was supposed to send out furious waves of electrical power. Saunders said his coil project managed to blow out television reception for blocks around. Another person who gravitated to S&P was Alan Kotok, a plump, chinless, thick-spectacled New Jerseyite in Samson’s class. Kotok’s family could recall him, at age three, prying a plug out of a wall with a screwdriver and causing a hissing shower of sparks to erupt. When he was six, he was building and wiring lamps. In high school he had once gone on a tour of the Mobil Research Lab in nearby Haddonfield, and saw his first computer—the exhilaration of that experience helped him decide to enter MIT. In his freshman year, he earned a reputation as one of TMRC’s most capable S&P people.
The S&P people were the ones who spent Saturdays going to Eli Heffron’s junkyard in Somerville scrounging for parts, who would spend hours on their backs resting on little rolling chairs they called “bunkies” to get underneath tight spots in the switching system, who would work through the night making the wholly unauthorized connection between the TMRC phone and the East Campus. Technology was their playground.
The core members hung out at the club for hours; constantly improving The System, arguing about what could be done next, developing a jargon of their own that seemed incomprehensible to outsiders who might chance on these teen-aged fanatics, with their checked short-sleeve shirts, pencils in their pockets, chino pants, and, always, a bottle of Coca-Cola by their side. (TMRC purchased its own Coke machine for the then forbidding sum of $165; at a tariff of five cents a bottle, the outlay was replaced in three months; to facilitate sales, Saunders built a change machine for Coke buyers that was still in use a decade later.) When a piece of equipment wasn’t working, it was “losing”; when a piece of equipment was ruined, it was “munged” (Mash Until No Good); the two desks in the corner of the room were not called the office, but the “orifice”; one who insisted on studying for courses was a “tool”; garbage was called “cruft”; and a project undertaken or a product built not solely to fulfill some constructive goal, but with some wild pleasure taken in mere involvement, was called a “hack.”
This latter term may have been suggested by ancient MIT lingo— the word “hack” had long been used to describe the elaborate college pranks that MIT students would regularly devise, such as covering the dome that overlooked the campus with reflecting foil. But as the TMRC people used the word, there was serious respect implied.
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.
Even though one might self-deprecatingly say he was “hacking away at The System” (much as an axe-wielder hacks at logs), the artistry with which one hacked was recognized to be considerable.
The most productive people working on Signals and Power called themselves “hackers” with great pride. Within the confines of the clubroom in Building 20, and of the “Tool Room” (where some study and many techno bull sessions took place), they had unilaterally endowed themselves with the heroic attributes of Icelandic legend. This is how Peter Samson saw himself and his friends in a Sandburg-esque poem in the club newsletter:
Switch Thrower for the World,
Fuze Tester, Maker of Routes,
Player with the Railroads and the System’s Advance Chopper; Grungy, hairy, sprawling,
Machine of the Point-Function Line-o-lite:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them; for I have seen your painted light bulbs under the lucite luring the system coolies . . .
Under the tower, dust all over the place, hacking with bifurcated springs . . .
Hacking even as an ignorant freshman acts who has never lost occupancy and has dropped out
Hacking the M-Boards, for under its locks are the switches, and under its control the advance around the layout, Hacking!
Hacking the grungy, hairy, sprawling hacks of youth; uncabled, frying diodes, proud to be Switch-thrower, Fuze- tester, Maker of Routes, Player with Railroads, and Advance Chopper to the System.
Whenever they could, Samson and the others would slip off to the EAM room with their plug boards, trying to use the machine to keep track of the switches underneath the layout. Just as important, they were seeing what the electromechanical counter could do, taking it to its limit. That spring of 1959, a new course was offered at MIT. It was the first course in programming a computer that freshmen could take. The teacher was a distant man with a wild shock of hair and an equally unruly beard—John McCarthy. A master mathematician, McCarthy was a classically absent-minded professor; stories abounded about his habit of suddenly answering a question hours, sometimes even days after it was first posed to him. He would approach you in the hallway, and with no salutation would begin speaking in his robotically precise diction, as if the pause in conversation had been only a fraction of a second, and not a week. Most likely, his belated response would be brilliant.
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.
This man actually thought that computers could be SMART. Even at such a science-intensive place as MIT, most people considered the thought ridiculous: they considered computers to be useful, if somewhat absurdly expensive, tools for number-crunching huge calculations and for devising missile defense systems (as MIT’s largest computer, the Whirlwind, had done for the early-warning SAGE system), but scoffed at the thought that computers themselves could actually be a scientific field of study. Computer Science did not officially exist at MIT in the late fifties, and McCarthy and his fellow computer specialists worked in the Electrical Engineering Department, which offered the course, No. 641, that Kotok, Samson, and a few other TRMC members took that spring.
McCarthy had started a mammoth program on the IBM 704—the Hulking Giant—that would give it the extraordinary ability to play chess. To critics of the budding field of Artificial Intelligence, this was just one example of the boneheaded optimism of people like John McCarthy. But McCarthy had a certain vision of what computers could do, and playing chess was only the beginning. All fascinating stuff, but not the vision that was driving Kotok and Samson and the others. They wanted to learn how to WORK the damn machines, and while this new programming language called LISP that McCarthy was talking about in 641 was interesting, it was not nearly as interesting as the act of programming, or that fantastic moment when you got your printout back from the Priesthood—word from the source itself!—and could then spend hours poring over the results of the program, what had gone wrong with it, how it could be improved. The TMRC hackers were devising ways to get into closer contact with the IBM 704, which soon was upgraded to a newer model called the 709. By hanging out at the computation center in the wee hours of the morning, and by getting to know the Priesthood, and by bowing and scraping the requisite number of times, people like Kotok were eventually allowed to push a few buttons on the machine, and watch the lights as it worked.
There were secrets to those IBM machines that had been painstakingly learned by some of the older people at MIT with access to the 704 and friends among the Priesthood. Amazingly, a few of these programmers, grad students working with McCarthy, had even written a program that utilized one of the rows of tiny lights: the lights would be lit in such an order that it looked like a little ball was being passed from right to left: if an operator hit a switch at just the right time, the motion of the lights could be reversed—Computer Ping-Pong! This obviously was the kind of thing that you’d show off to impress your peers, who would then take a look at the actual program you had written and see how it was done.
To top the program, someone else might try to do the same thing with fewer instructions—a worthy endeavor, since there was so little room in the small “memory” of the computers of those days that not many instructions could fit into them, John McCarthy had once noticed how his graduate students who loitered around the 704 would work over their computer programs to get the most out of the fewest instructions, and get the program compressed so that fewer cards would need to be fed to the machine. Shaving off an instruction or two was almost an obsession with them. McCarthy compared these students to ski bums. They got the same kind of primal thrill from “maximizing code” as fanatic skiers got from swooshing frantically down a hill.
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.”
McCarthy in 1959 was turning his interest from chess to a new way of talking to the computer, the whole new “language” called LISP. Alan Kotok and his friends were more than eager to take over the chess project. Working on the batch-processed IBM, they embarked on the gargantuan project of teaching the 704, and later the 709, and even after that its replacement the 7090, how to play the game of kings. Eventually Kotok’s group became the largest users of computer time in the entire MIT computation center.
Still, working with the IBM machine was frustrating. There was nothing worse than the long wait between the time you handed in your cards and the time your results were handed back to you. If you had misplaced as much as one letter in one instruction, the program would crash, and you would have to start the whole process over again. It went hand in hand with the stifling proliferation of goddamn RULES that permeated the atmosphere of the computation center. Most of the rules were designed to keep crazy young computer fans like Samson and Kotok and Saunders physically distant from the machine itself. The most rigid rule of all was that no one should be able to actually touch or tamper with the machine itself. This, of course, was what those Signals and Power people were dying to do more than anything else in the world, and the restrictions drove them mad.
One priest—a low-level sub-priest, really—on the late-night shift was particularly nasty in enforcing this rule, so Samson devised a suitable revenge. While poking around at Eli’s electronic junk shop one day, he chanced upon an electrical board precisely like the kind of board holding the clunky vacuum tubes which resided inside the IBM. One night, sometime before 4 A.M., this particular sub-priest stepped out for a minute; when he returned, Samson told him that the machine wasn’t working, but they’d found the trouble—and held up the totally smashed module from the old 704 he’d gotten at Eli’s.
The sub-priest could hardly get the words out. “W-where did you get that?”
Samson, who had wide green eyes that could easily look maniacal, slowly pointed to an open place on the machine rack where, of course, no board had ever been, but the space still looked sadly bare. The sub-priest gasped. He made faces that indicated his bowels were about to give out. He whimpered exhortations to the deity. Visions, no doubt, of a million-dollar deduction from his paycheck began flashing before him. Only after his supervisor, a high priest with some understanding of the mentality of these young wiseguys from the Model Railroad Club, came and explained the situation did he calm down.
He was not the last administrator to feel the wrath of a hacker thwarted in the quest for access.
All images courtesy of the MIT Museum unless otherwise stated.
Part 1 of “Hackers at 30”
The most famous phrase in “Hackers” wasn’t in the book.medium.com
Part 3 of “Hackers at 30”