Around the world today, hackers are working hard to find vulnerabilities in the information technology systems our lives rely on. They hack these systems by intercepting supposedly secure communication, altering messages, and using that information for personal gain. There are white hat hackers, hacking for good and working for places like Apple and the Pentagon to find weaknesses in their technology and fix it. There are black hat hackers, hacking for bad and doing things like accessing email accounts or stealing credit card information. Some hackers just do it because they can and have no real agenda. But try to imagine for a second who the first hacker was, the first ever person to intercept a secure message and change it or alter it. Are you a picturing a Soviet KGB agent figuring out a way to read communiqués from the Kennedy white house during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Maybe you have in mind a teenager in their parents’ garage figuring out a way into the Department of Defense’s “secure” network in the mid-1980s?
What if I told you that the first hacker was a stage magician?
What if I told you this magician did it to call someone a “diddler of the public”?
In the 19th century, most communication was done physically. If we wanted to communicate, I would need to send you a note or a letter. If we were far apart, then maybe I could use a telegraph, but even then there’s a physical connection with a physical cable connecting you and me.
In 1887, German physicist Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the existence of electromagnetic waves. Electromagnetic waves were first theorized in 1865, but Hertz was the first to develop an experimental setup to demonstrate their existence (you can see a modern demonstration of Hertz’ setup here). It didn’t take physicists long to realize that electromagnetic waves can be used for lots of applications, including transmitting Morse code, but physicists weren’t very interested in exploring that possibility and left it for engineers.
Enter Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi. He spent the last decade of the 19th century developing technology that could leverage Hertz’ electromagnetic waves for wireless communication. In 1894, he successfully rang a bell across the room without wires using radio waves . Several months later he successfully transmitted Morse code messages over distances greater than two miles. The Italian government was dismissive of his ideas and with the Italian Minister for Post and Telegraphs commenting on Marconi’s proposal that he should be sent “to the Longara”, a Roman insane asylum. As a result, funding was hard to come by in his native Italy. He left Italy in 1896, setting sail to England at the age of 21, in hopes of an easier time getting patents for his inventions and acquiring funding from the British government.
Marconi’s British gambit paid off. The British government invested in his technology. In March of 1897, Marconi was able to transmit messages almost 4 miles. In May of 1987, Marconi sent a message over the Bristol Channel, the first wireless communication to ever cross open water. Marconi gained international attention, receiving invitations to demonstrate his technology in Italy, France and the United States as the 19th century drew to a close. In 1901, Marconi sent the first communication over the Atlantic, crossing the 2,200 miles from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Poldhu, Cornwall in the United Kingdom. By 1903 he was convinced that his technology not only worked, but that it was secure, claiming “I can tune my instruments so that no other instrument that is not similarly tuned can tap my messages.”
That claim was to be his downfall as it attracted the attention of British magician and inventor, Nevil Maskelyne. Like his father and fellow inventor/magician John N. Maskelyne, Nevil Maskelyne liked to go after people making false claims and prove them wrong using scientific principles and reasoning. John N. Maskelyne used his stage magic to demystify mediums and spiritualists by showing how their work could be explained using scientific principles. Inspired by his father’s approach of using science and engineering to go after frauds under the guise of stage magic, Nevil Maskelyne developed a strong knowledge of electrical engineering and used it to take Marconi down with his stage magician’s flair. Nevil Maskelyne had managed to intercept several of Marconi’s messages, so he knew they weren’t secure from eavesdropping. He also knew the British military was supporting this technology and that they needed to be aware that it wasn’t as secure as Marconi claimed.
Nevil Maskelyne knew he had to show that Marconi was wrong, but he also knew it had to be big, it had to be public, and it had to be salacious in order to work. After all, no one had paid attention when he’d tried to raise the issue in 1902 by writing in The Electrician about how he’d successfully intercepted Marconi’s communications. Luckily, he eventually got the perfect opportunity to show Marconi up. On June 4th, 1903 physicist John Ambrose Fleming was giving a lecture at the Royal Academy of Science and his lecture was to end with a transmission from Marconi 300 miles away in Cornwall. As the lecture neared its end, Fleming and his assistant noticed that the receiver was picking up signals and firing off Morse code. Fleming’s assistant translated the Morse Code, as it repeatedly tapped out the word “rats”. Eventually “rats” gave way to the message “There was a young fellow of Italy [i.e. Marconi], who diddled the public quite prettily,” followed by Shakespeare quotes, and even accusations that Marconi had slept with the sender’s wife. Eventually, the hacked communication ended and Marconi’s message came through, but the damage was done and Marconi’s “secure” communications were shown to be anything but. Marconi stayed quiet about the hack, but Fleming challenged people to help him track down this perpetrator of “scientific hooliganism.”.
Nevil Maskelyne came forward four days later and confessed to being the sought-after scientific hooligan. He did it (or so he claimed) to show the flaws in Marconi’s technology, because he believed that everyone needed to know that Marconi’s wireless messages could be hacked. He might also have been motivated by the fact that he was on the payroll of Eastern Telegraphic Company, a business that relied on wired communication that stood to lose from Marconi’s wireless communication.
And this is how the story of the first hack ends, not with a bang but with a Morse coded whisper of scientific hooliganism. Fleming carried on his grudge against Maskelyne in the press for a few more months. Marconi no longer called his technology completely secure, but stayed in the good graces of the British government and continued to develop radio technology. Maskelyne, the first white hat hacker, disappeared into history leaving behind a legacy that worries us all today – wondering if our emails, online bankers, and cat videos are secure.