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Technology history is filled with the stories of ethical hackers, as well as the intellectually curious seeking to prove a point. (See the stories of punch card expert René Carmille and the British journalists who hacked into Prince Philip’s inbox.) Whether a hack is ultimately good is in the eye of the beholder. That was likely the case with one of history’s earliest known hacks.

On June 4, 1903, inventor Guglielmo Marconi and Sir John Ambrose Fleming held a demonstration of Marconi’s wireless telegraph system. From Cornwall, Marconi planned to transmit messages to Fleming approximately 300 miles away at the Royal Academy of Sciences in London. The goal was to demonstrate the system’s ability to securely receive messages from a long distance.

However, just as the demo was beginning, the system began receiving a message in Morse code. Initially, the messages said “Rats” over and over, but then they veered into limerick: “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily.”

Marconi was a hacker with a point to make

The hacker was none other than magician and inventor Nevil Maskelyne, working at the behest of a rival wireless company. Maskelyne sought to prove Marconi’s system wasn’t as secure as claimed. The prank set off a war of words in which Maskelyne and Marconi argued in letters to the newspaper about the cause of the interference.

Ultimately, it was determined the system used for the demonstration was not actually tuned to a specific frequency as Marconi had claimed it to be. Such a device would have been too big for the demo.

Marconi’s reputation didn’t suffer much, but the incident increased awareness of the need for wireless security and encryption systems for use by governments.

Maskelyne, also the author of a seminal textbook on magic, wrote of the incident in The Electrician journal: “In conclusion, I can only say that, however much or however little the interferences may have proved, the facts above mentioned prove a very great deal. Personally, I am quite satisfied with the results obtained. And when it is complained that my action in the matter resembles ‘getting in at the back door;’ I merely rejoin that the fault lies with those who had not left the front door open.”

Photo: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock


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Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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