Hacktivists: Doin' It For the Lulz Since 1903

By Veronique Greenwood | December 27, 2011 2:35 pm

Marconi and assistants erecting a radio antenna.

They call themselves hacktivists. Or they say they’re doing it just for the lulz: Some hackers take over sites, swipe users’ information, and then post their exploits online  just to make the point that hey, you losers aren’t as safe as you thought you were. Better fix that gaping hole in your electronic chain link fence.

It may seem like the kind of public embarrassment only possible in the networked age (at least, Sony probably remembers the era of the Walkman a lot more fondly than this last mortifying year of being hacked again and again), but as Paul Marks writes in New Scientist, it ain’t necessarily so. Just ask Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless telegraph.

In 1903, Marconi’s assistants in London were prepping for a big demo of their wireless telegraph (aka long-range radio), just like any tech businessmen in the history of technology—setting up the brass lantern projector, getting the telegraph up and running, letting the crowd get nice and excited, you know, the whole shebang. Then, while they’re waiting for their test message to come in from the boss, who’s camped out on a cliff in Cornwall, the thing starts going off by itself.

“Rats rats rats rats,” it says, and then launches into a string of insults, include some snarky verse: “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily.” The sniping stopped just a few moments before Marconi’s demo message began.

Generally speaking, this was the telegraph-era equivalent of U Bin Hacked. And given that security was a major selling point for this gizmo—it was thought being able to tune radio transmissions to a specific frequency would keep anyone from intercepting them, which we now know is untrue (that’s how we listen to the ballgame today)—Marconi et al. got their panties in a big bunch over the breach. They sent an open letter to The Times demanding that the miscreant reveal himself.

Which he did. In another open letter, Nevil Maskelyne, stage magician, tinkerer, industrial spy, said pretty much what all hacktivists have ever said: Your system’s insecure, and now you have to own up to it. Suckers.

For more on Maskelyne’s exploits and the fascinating backstory, check out Marks’ piece.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
  • tweek


  • Georg Schoen

    Poor Marconi!
    Undoubdetly he was the first to throw aside too many buts and whys and tried
    to combine Hertz’ waves gnerating and Branly coherer.
    But what he did not understand and achieve, was reall “tuning”. His transmitters were really
    broadband, and studied physicists like Braun, Graf Arco and Fessenden needed not more
    than some years to show how this business is done. Kind of personal tragedy.


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