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In the summer of 2004, a group of East Campus residents joked about stealing the Fleming cannon, a 19th-century artillery piece that “guards” the Caltech dormitory known as Fleming House. It had been done before. In 1986, students from nearby Harvey Mudd College took the cannon as a prank, and then returned it.

But after Caltech students hacked MIT’s Campus Preview Weekend in April 2005, the idea of bringing the cannon to MIT became more compelling. After all, Caltech students had programmed a laser to spell “Caltech” on the Green Building and handed out official-looking MIT T-shirts with “because not everyone can go to Caltech” printed on the back. By December 2005, the would-be MIT hackers had convinced themselves that the cannon hack might just be possible. Within four months, a group of two dozen-plus MIT students from Third East would pull off one of the most complex hacks in the Institute’s history, generating considerable media coverage and arguably ushering in a new era of hacking.

They would abduct the nearly two-ton cannon, have it transported across the country, display it in front of the Green Building, and for good measure mount a giant brass rat on its barrel. “It’s an interesting new type of hack,” says MIT Museum science and technology curator Deborah Douglas, who calls it one of the most carefully planned and most complicated hacks ever carried out by MIT students.

[Click here to see photos of the Caltech cannon hack, as well as images from a 1979 hack carried out at Harvard involving a brass rat.] 

Planning began in earnest in January 2006. Douglas, who has had contact with people who were probably the hackers, says that only a few of them were involved in all aspects of the hack; the rest organized into “ring” and “cannon” groups. The ring group focused on making a giant brass rat, a gilded aluminum replica that Douglas’s informants say took nearly 1,000 hours to make. The cannon group, which Douglas says selected itself based partly on willingness to risk arrest, planned the seizure of the cannon and its move to MIT.

The students managing the hack made some decisions that broke radically with tradition. They would rely on outsiders to perform essential elements of the hack, hiring commercial movers to transport the cannon to MIT and enlisting experts to handle much of the production of the brass rat. And to cover their expenses, they would organize an ­­e-mail fund-raising campaign that generated at least $2,000.

Douglas believes both decisions were unprecedented. Hacks, by their very nature, are secretive. To involve outsiders is to risk exposure. To minimize that risk, the hackers told the moving company that the Fleming cannon was a movie prop. They also cloaked their initial appeal for financial support in vague terms. “Perhaps you’ve heard about the Caltech hackers that came out to MIT last spring to engage in some hacks,” began one fund-raising e-mail. “A response is being planned by some MIT hackers.” Although outsourcing and fund-raising were risky, both were deemed necessary for the execution of such an ambitious hack.

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