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The First Hacker?

Posted by Boghound on January 23, 2012


Who Was the First Hacker?

New Scientist has recently revealed the name of the world’s first hacker, who managed to discover a security hole in Marconi’s wireless telegraph and managed to show the inventor up.

It turned out that a stage magician named Nevil Maskelyn wrecked a public demo of Marconi’s wireless telegraph over a century ago, in 1903, – he sent insults in Morse code down the wire. The crowd was really amused when the physicist John Ambrose Fleming has been adjusting arcane apparatus while preparing to show the long-range wireless communication system created by his boss, the Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, who was several hundreds miles away trying to send the message.

However, before the show could start, the apparatus in the lecture theater started to tap out a message – it appeared to be a poem accusing Marconi of “diddling the public”. Fleming’s assistant found out that beaming powerful wireless pulses into the theater were strong enough to be able to interfere with the electric arc discharge lamp of the projector. The apparatus began spelling “Rats” repeatedly and after this ripped into the poem.

That’s how Maskelyn proved that Marconi’s item was insecure, and the others could easily eavesdrop on private messages as well. Meanwhile, Fleming fired off a missive to the Times, calling the hack “scientific hooliganism” and asking the readers to help him find the hacker. Nevertheless, Maskelyn, whose family earned money by making “spend-a-penny” locks in pay toilets, outed himself 4 days later. He tried to justify his actions by the security holes it discovered for the public good. He used Morse code in his mind-reading tricks and managed to send wireless messages between a ground station and a balloon located 10 miles away. Nevertherless, Maskelyn was stuffed up by the fact that Marconi had patents on his technology but failed to develop it.

It later appeared that he was hired as a spy for the Eastern Telegraph Company that was worried that Marconi could stuff up its business.

The first hacker built a 50-metre radio mast somewhere on the cliffs in order to find out if he could eavesdrop on messages beamed by Marconi Company to vessels. As a result, Maskelyn pointed out that Marconi’s security was a doddle to hack. Although Maskelyne’s name had been forgotten, he is now again in the history books as the world’s first hacker.

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