Who was the first hacker? When was the term ‘hacking‘ coined, and does it really have to involve computers at all? 

It turns out that the concept of hacking is not a creation of the last couple of decades. Moreover, it does not even require computers to be involved. See who was the first hacker ever, and how did he go down in history!

100 years

A wireless network was first broken into more than100 years ago! How did it happen? In June 1903, a special performance took place in one of the halls of The Royal Institution in London. During it, John Ambrose Fleming, a physicist, demonstrated a technological miracle of his era – long range wireless communication, a project of Italian radio pioneer Gugilelmo Marconi. The purpose of the performance was to show it to the wide public that it is possible to convey safe and wireless transmissions in Morse alphabet between London and a destination point about 480 km away – a station in Poldhu village in Cornwall.

Before the message was sent, a characteristic knocking was heard, coming from the apparatus. At first, the audience took it for a simple malfunction of the fickle equipment. However, Fleming‘s assistant quickly figured out that the sound is actually a word – ‘rats‘, looped over and over again. After a moment, it turned into a mocking verse, accusing Marconi of deceiving the public. The performance was hacked, and it occurred more than 100 years ago!

Before Marconi started to send his own signal, the previous one went silent. However, it left a clear sign for the public – if someone was able to interfere with a transmission that easily, it means it is not as secure as it was presented.

Who was responsible?

Although Marconi refused to comment on the incident, Fleming did it eagerly. He wrote a letter to The Times of London, where he clearly identified the interference as an act of vandalism. He also asked the readers to help apprehending the perpetrator. As it turned out, he did not have to wait long.

Four days after his letter, the newspaper published a reply of the person responsible for the incident. It was Nevil Maskelyne, 39. a British magician showing lively interest in wireless technologies. During his performances, he would use Morse code to secretly communicate with his assistant. His knowledge of wireless communications allowed him to send a Morse coded message to a balloon 16 km away. However, his ambitions and willingness to expand his knowledge were constantly thwarted by Marconi‘s patents.

Maskelyne wanted to take his revenge on the Italian pioneer, and to expose the flaws of his technology. He interfered with the signal by setting up a simple transmitter and sending Morse code near the hall of The Royal Institution. Fleming kept attacking Maskelyne in newspapers for a long time, accusing him of scientific sabotage. In turn, Nevil responded that a physicist should rather shift his focus to obvious lacks of security.

Hacking is not an invention of the last several decades only. As you can see, the first documented case took place more than100 years ago, and obviously did not involve any computers. Do you think Fleming might have protected himself from such an atttack?

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