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Nov 13, 07 - 5:43 am

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Before the word “hacker” was wrongly associated with vandalistic script kiddies and mischievous virus writers, it was used to describe an underground culture.

This underground culture was made up of professional engineers and basement tinkerers obsessed with improving computer technology through unconventional, simple, yet brilliant tricks.

Out of this early 1960s hacker culture grew an offshoot of technological anarchists, otherwise ordinary nerds with an irrepressible desire to provoke and prod the establishment. Their exploits made them hacker gods and in some cases unexpected inmates.

1878: Young male switchboard operators at Bell telephone purposefully misdirect phone calls and listen in on the hilarious results. Bell only hires female operators from henceforth.

1961: MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club receives its first PDP-1 computer, which it adopts as its toy of choice. The early members of the TMRC evolve a culture and slang all their own.

It’s at MIT that the term “hacker” is believed to have been born. TMRC understood hacking as inventing a quick, elegant fix for a complex problem without damaging or affecting the greater system.

1969: Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson at Bell Labs create the crowning achievement of ’60s-style positive hacking: Unix.

The new operating system allows many different programmers to access a computer’s resources at the same time. Unix also works on different, competing computer platforms, which are plentiful in 1969.

The US Department of Defense develops ARPANET (now the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency), the first high-speed computer network connecting universities, research laboratories, and defense contractors.

For the first time, disparate hacker groups from MIT, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and elsewhere can mingle and collaborate over a transcontinental network. The result is a deepening of hacker culture, lingo, and lifestyle.

  • Read the Jargon File, the definitive hacker document from the ARPANET days.

1971 John Draper1971: John Draper, aka Cap’n Crunch, discovers that the free whistle given away in Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes can be used to gain free access to phone networks.

The whistle produces a perfect 2,600-MHz tone, the exact audio wavelength needed to fool the phone company’s multifrequency system into giving him a free dial tone. The practice becomes known as “phone phreaking” or just “phreaking.”

1971-1972 Steve Wozniak1971-1972: Berkeley engineering students Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and Bill Klaxton contact Draper and ask to learn the ways of the blue box, the small, electronic tone device Draper invented to phreak phone networks.

Always the prankster, Wozniak’s first phreaked call is to the pope. Against Draper’s advice, Wozniak builds some blue boxes of his own and sells them for $150 a pop.

Some of the money earned from this illegal scheme is used to fund one of Wozniak’s side projects with Jobs, a personal computing venture that would become Apple Computer.

May 1972: Draper is arrested for phone phreaking and sentenced to four months in California’s Lompoc prison, where he teaches fellow inmates the ins and outs of hacking Ma Bell.

1980: Usenet is born, networking Unix machines over slow phone lines. Usenet eventually overruns ARPANET as the virtual bulletin board of choice for the emerging hacker nation.

1982: As hacker culture begins to erode, losing some of its brightest minds to commercial PC and software start-ups, Richard Stallman starts to develop a free clone of Unix, written in C, that he calls GNU (for “Gnu’s Not Unix”).

The purest strains of old-school hackerdom are believed to survive in Stallman’s free software movement.

1983: The movie WarGames launches a popular — if misconstrued — image of hackers headfirst into the mainstream media. Amateur interest in hacking explodes.

It’s around this same time that the term “hacking” begins to be widely applied to criminal computer behavior, confusing the original meaning of hacking forever.

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