Trivia

Hard

Nevil Maskelyne Made Headlines As A Hacker Who Infiltrated What?

Wireless Telegraphy
The Hubble Telescope
Queen Elizabeth's Private Phone
The Kremlin
Photograph of John Nevil Maskelyne , English Stage-Illusionist and Inventor.
Public Domain/Wikimedia

Answer: Wireless Telegraphy

While we’re used to talking about hackers in terms of current security breaches, cyber warfare, and a distinctly post 20th-century technological landscape, one of the earliest hackers was actually an early 20th-century gentleman harassing none other than Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi.

In 1903, a crowd was gathered at the Royal Institute of Science’s lecture hall in London. The crowd was there to witness a demonstration of long-distance, secure, and wireless telegraph transmission put on by physicist John Ambrose Fleming (who was there on behalf of his boss and the inventor of the technology, Marconi).

Right before the demonstration was about to begin, the telegraph came to life, seemingly of its own accord, and began tapping out messages. For several minutes it tapped out “Rats. Rats. Rats.” over and over again before then shifting to “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily.”, which was in turn followed by more insults directed at Marconi, mocking lines from Shakespeare, and additional insults.

Who was behind this early hack? A man by the name of Nevil Maskelyne, who was also an early pioneer in wireless communication and rather irritated with Marconi’s claims that the technology was secure. Like modern hackers who scoff at the claims governments and companies make about security (and frequently poke holes in those claims), Maskelyne had done just that by hijacking the demonstration and showing that the allegedly secure medium was anything but.

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