The very first hacker
Although people consider hacking to be a modern phenomenon, it is over a hundred years old. The very first hacker to achieve renown used Morse code.
It happened in 1903. John Ambrose Fleming was demonstrating a new long range wireless developed by Guglielmo Marconi that would show for the very first time that Morse code could be transmitted over long distances. The message was to be transmitted to London from Cornwall.
However, as if there were a ghost in the machine, the receiver began to tap out Morse code. Initially it repeated a single word message a number of times then it tapped out a poem accusing Marconi of conning the public.
The motivation for the event dates back to 1887 when Heinrich Hertz demonstrated electromagnetic waves. He induced a spark between a pair of electrodes be creating a spark between another pair a short distance away thus laying the foundation of wireless telegraphy.
Marconi believed that private messages could be sent over long distances from and to tuned transmitters and receivers and that they could not be intercepted by instruments that were not similarly tuned.
The first thing that went wrong on the day of the demonstration was a ticking noise that came from a projection lamp that was being used to display Marconi’s slides to the audience. It was recognised by an assistant of Fleming as Morse code and he assumed that strong wireless pulses being beamed into the room were interfering with the arc lamp of the projector.
Initially the message was the word “rats” which was repeated several times before several rude epithets followed which mocked Marconi. The planned demonstration continued but a fatal blow had been struck on Marconi’s claim that private messages could be sent by wireless telegraphy. If a wireless frequency could be so easily intruded upon, then so too could private messages.
Fleming called the hack scientific hooliganism and called for the perpetrator to be identified. A few days later the hacker, a theatre magician called Maskelyne, confessed, claiming that he had done it for the public good and to highlight a fundamental insecurity in the system.
However he also had issues with Marconi. Maskelyne had been using wireless technology in his magic tricks but had been thwarted by Marconi’s overly broad patents.
Although Virgin broadband communications have come on a long way since the advent of wireless telegraphy, modern day internet hackers frequently make similar claims to those of Maskelyne; that they had been motivated to hack in order to demonstrate system security vulnerabilities.
Marconi’s big mistake had been to believe that communications between two finely tuned transmitters and receivers could not be intercepted, but Maskelyne had been able to do so using a broadly tuned receiver, just like broadband deals that might give you access to your neighbours internet connection.