In MIT parlance, a hack is an anonymous prank, a gentle spoof, usually of MIT’s administration. Yet some have taken MIT hacks seriously enough to write entire books about them. The most recent, Nightwork, includes an obituary of sorts, for a prominent association of hackers:
“THA–Technology Hackers Association, a now-defunct hacking group…”
Yet this, too, is a hack. I know, because I’m a THA member, and on a Friday night in May, my fellow members and I met in a Cambridge church rec room to celebrate the association’s 25th anniversary. On the surface, it looked like an ordinary gathering, not the legendary–and secretive–organization behind so many of MIT’s greatest hacks. A table display of locks gave it away: a veritable history of the hardware that has protected MIT’s laboratories, offices, and rooftops over the last 50 or so years.
“This is what MIT’s using now.” An earnest, red-haired young man plucked a lock barrel from the pile on the table and thrust it at me. The lock was distinguishable from the others only in that it was shiny. “It’s a Primus,” he said.
“Can you pick it?” I asked.
“Not yet. I can’t get past the double bitting,” he answered, referring to the second row of teeth on the interior of the shaft.
Having a table of locks to pick would be, to say the least, unusual at most reunions, but it’s emblematic of THA’s quarter-century reign as MIT’s premier hacking organization.
From its humble beginnings in a New House dorm room in 1980, the Technology Hackers Association has become the de facto caretaker of one of MIT’s greatest traditions. If the group didn’t exist, a few hundred hacks would never have taken place–though it does not officially claim credit for any of them.
Out of a membership of around 230 (of which about 10 percent are active at any given time), several dozen THAers from across the country had converged on Cambridge to celebrate an organization that, by necessity, operates outside the formal bounds of the MIT community. As often happens at such gatherings, the reunion broke down along generational lines. Old-timers wanted to reminisce and discuss their hacks openly. Current students were less forthcoming, and those who were willing to talk did not want to be identified.
According to founder Bryan Bentz ‘80, ‘82, the association grew out of “Freshman Shower Night,” when upperclassmen would throw freshmen into the shower the night before their first 8.01 physics exam. As a senior, Bentz organized the freshmen to oppose it. “I instinctively rebel against any form of hazing,” he explains. Bentz later took these freshmen (and a few upperclassmen) and formed THA “to get something lighthearted” into his life, he says. Membership would be for life, Bentz decided. Members received ID cards and numbers. He became number 100. ID numbers help preserve anonymity, and to this day, THA refers to members only by number in its communications.
The group pulled its first hack before Bentz left campus. According to John Pitrelli ‘83, SM ‘85, PhD ‘90 (THA member 101), the hack, which took place in February 1980, was “to fly a 16-by-11-foot Soviet flag saying ‘Stop the Draft’ from the fifth floor of the student center during a rally against draft registration.”
The first hack to gain public off-campus notice was a working phone booth placed on the Great Dome in 1982. This was followed in 1985, when the group parked a decrepit Fiat (owned by member 133) in Lobby 10 and refashioned the Infinite Corridor into the “Mass. Toolpike” (“tool” being an MIT term for studying really hard) with a $16,000 toll (the cost of tuition). The next year, the group addressed a campus housing shortage by creating room number “10-1000,” a dorm atop the Great Dome.