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Traditions Old and New

Quirky customs reflect the Institute’s character and culture.

About a month into the fall semester, almost every first-year student at MIT takes an unexpected evening shower, courtesy of the upperclassmen in the student’s living group. No one knows for sure when freshman showering began-it’s been an MIT tradition for at least four decades-but there’s no doubt about what it signals: the eve of the dreaded first physics exam. Daniel Cho ‘02 recalls his freshman year in Burton House and the night he and about 14 of his classmates, some armed with water pistols and water balloons, were hauled away by seniors. The official showering took less than an hour, he says, but seniors kept it going for several more, grabbing any spectators who looked vulnerable and forcing them under the spray. It degenerated into a massive water fight that Cho says dispelled the idea of studying and left the carpets soaked for days.

Traditions, quirky, comforting and persistent, are part of MIT’s mystique. Some are so embedded in the nature of the place that they will never fade away. Others are strong for years or even decades and then disappear. But it is the accumulated impact of these idiosyncratic practices-beginning as early as first-year orientation with the clandestine Orange Tours and ending at graduation, when the president personally hands every degree to members of the class-that does much to define the distinctive MIT culture.

MIT’s First Tradition

Conversations about MIT tradition turn invariably and quickly to hacks, those ingenious but benign student pranks that have been a hallmark of the Institute since at least the 1870s. Hacks require humor as well as precision in planning and engineering-a unique combination of attributes regularly found among the students on campus. Hacks do not cause damage or harm and are typically accomplished by anonymous student groups between midnight and 5 a.m. The identity of hackers has always been-and still is-a closely guarded secret (though many on campus today believe that most of the culprits live in Senior House or in East Campus).

One of the most famous hacks of the last 25 years occurred in November 1982, during the Harvard-Yale football game. A remotely controlled black weather balloon bearing the Institute’s initials emerged from Harvard’s field near the 50-yard line. The balloon inflated to a diameter of two meters, then exploded in a cloud of talcum powder.

True to tradition, the identity of the offenders remained unknown until a few weeks after the game, when then MIT president Paul Gray ‘54, SM ‘55, ScD ‘60, said he wished he’d been part of the hacker team. Then the brothers of Delta Kappa Epsilon came forward and admitted the prank was theirs.

“We were ecstatic,” one of the brothers says, claiming he was only tangentially involved. “It was the perfect hack. For a while, we were campus heroes.” To this day they will not reveal exactly who participated, but admit that the hackers included a sizable fraction of their members.

On the last day of classes in May of 1994, another hack-the police car on the dome-made the news around the world. Scores of students pulling end-of-the-semester all-nighters saw the hack in the hours just before dawn. Across the river in Boston, Dave DeCaprio ‘94 and some of his fraternity brothers in Sigma Phi Epsilon noticed blue flashing lights above the street lamps of Memorial Drive around 4 a.m. “We couldn’t figure out where they were coming from,” he says.

Elliot Hui ‘94, was up late finishing a final project. “Through the lab window, we could see the top of the dome,” he recalls. “We noticed people walking around the top of the dome pretty early on, but only as the pieces of the car slowly materialized did we realize what was going on. Unfortunately, I was too stressed out over my project to fully appreciate what was unfolding on the dome that night.”

Jeremy Hylton ‘94, MNG ‘96, who worked at the Tech that spring, was in a similar state of mind. He recalls taking a phone call reporting the hack sometime after 4 a.m. “I had been up all night finishing a lab report. I was tired by the time I took the call, and I remember discounting it as a prank call. A car on the dome. Sure.’ I didn’t even bother to check,” he says. It wasn’t until after sunrise that he decided to confirm it, and there was the car, its flashing lights just visible in the emerging light. “It was a big distraction for the rest of the morning,” he recalls. “I don’t remember when I finished the lab report exactly.”

The hack, which many cite as the best of all time, turned out to be the exterior of a Chevrolet Cavalier attached to a wooden frame and painted in the colors of a campus police cruiser. The car, numbered p (pi), had an “IHTFP” license plate and a citation on the windshield for parking without a permit. Inside, fuzzy dice hung from the rear-view mirror, and a uniformed dummy enjoyed the remnants of a box of doughnuts.

When campus personnel finally disassembled the car-with explicit instructions left behind by the hackers-and removed it from the dome, the car and its contents became the focal point of a long-term exhibition of hacks at the MIT Museum.

The Immortal Smoot

Lambda Chi Alpha pledges measured the Harvard Bridge with their brother Oliver Smoot ‘62, and started another well-known MIT tradition. (Photo courtesy of MIT Museum)

Like all Lambda Chi Alpha pledges in the fall of 1958, Oliver R. Smoot Jr. ‘62 had to take part in a weekly project assigned by the fraternity. In October, the wannabes were told to mark off the Harvard Bridge in pledge lengths, making it clear how much farther brothers had to walk from their Boston fraternity house to get to campus. Smoot, the shortest of the group, was chosen as the unit of measure. The pledges originally planned to measure the bridge with string, but when a brother decided to accompany them on the project, they had no option but to use Smoot to accomplish the measurements.

Every 10 lengths of Smoot’s body, a hash mark was painted on the bridge, eventually deemed 364.4 Smoots and one ear long. “Luckily for the five of us, we were cold sober,” Smoot wrote in  1983, describing the hack and contradicting the widely held campus myth that Smoot was drunk and “stiff as a board” when the measurements were taken.

Smoots quickly became campus legend, and biannually thereafter, the Lambda Chi pledges repainted the marks on the bridge. In 1987, during the 25th reunion of the Class of 1962, a brass plaque honoring the Smoot as a standard unit of measure was placed on the bridge. Two years later, the bridge faced reconstruction, threatening the famed Smoot markings with extinction. To preserve the legend, the Lambda Chi pledge class marked the intervals with a kite string and then repainted the marks on the new bridge.

Traditions That Fade Away

The Glove Fight between freshmen and sophomores usually degenerated into a free-for-all. (Photo courtesy of MIT Museum)

Although showering, hacks and Smoots are indelible parts of Institute life, other once durable traditions have simply disappeared. In the earliest days of MIT, for example, the freshman and sophomore classes would take part every fall in a quasi sporting event called the “Cane Rush.” The freshmen were given a special cane that the sophomores attempted to take away, with mayhem ensuing. In 1900, the chaos turned to tragedy. When the clashing masses finally separated, freshman Hugh Moore lay unconscious. He died shortly afterward.

In response, the Institute dropped the Cane Rush and in 1901 replaced it with Field Day, a series of three competitions-a football game, a tug-of-war and a relay race. But the nature of the competition did not decrease the intensity of the interclass rivalry. After the 1926 Field Day, the school expelled two students and suspended two more for property damage and disciplined 13 for rioting.

In 1927 the Institute introduced the Glove Fight to Field Day. Class members were each given a colored glove, and the object of the fight was for each class to secure as many gloves as possible from the other class. Students started hiding gloves in their clothing, only to have shirts and pants torn off by rivals. They learned to tape their clothing to their bodies, but that proved ineffective; fierce competitors from the classes ripped right through the tape.

By the late 1950s, Field Day had evolved into more unusual events, such as a litter race, in which teams of men rushed women wearing crash helmets across Briggs Field on 2.5-meter-wide decorated litters. By 1968, with protests against the war in Vietnam escalating, political activists denounced Field Day as a petty event. The class of 1971, then sophomores, agreed. They boycotted the event that year, and the long-standing tradition came to an end.

Do Drop In

Dropping a piano from the roof of Baker House onto Amherst Alley started as a way to dispose of a defective upright then turned into a sporadic tradition between 1972 and 1984. (Photo courtesy of MIT Museum)

MIT students love to drop things from high places. And drops of various kinds-either for fun or to learn something-are becoming modern-day campus traditions that meld some of the old with some of the new.

Take, for example, the Baker House piano drop. In 1972, Charlie Bruno ‘74 decided that the most interesting and challenging way to rid the residence hall of a defective upright piano was to haul it to the roof and drop it onto Amherst Alley 19 meters below. Jos Rodal ‘74, SM ‘75, PhD ‘79, who was charged with filming the piano drop, says at least half of Baker House got involved in moving and tossing the piano. And the enterprising students didn’t waste the fall. They calculated the piano’s plunge at 19 meters per second with an impact of 20,000 kilograms. To verify the results, a piano was dropped off Baker House every year a piano was available, until 1984, when Amherst Alley was relocated away from the residence hall, thus eliminating the test site.

In the last decade or so, several new drops have caught students’ attention. One involved dropping flaming alcohol-saturated watermelons about 50 meters from the top of MacGregor House. (Students abandoned this tomfoolery, however, in the late 1990s, for safety reasons.) Another is the Halloween pumpkin drop from the top of the Green Building.

One that draws a crowd today is the egg drop, held during orientation in the fall. This activity challenges students to build contraptions that will house eggs and keep them unbroken after being dropped 76 meters from the top of the Green Building.

During orientation, those late-at-night, covert Orange Tours continue to elude campus security and take incoming students to some of MIT’s high and low points. The illicit tours go to the top of the domes on Buildings 10 and 7, the top of the Green Building, into the steam tunnels and to other obscure locations on campus.

But week after week, one of the enduring campus traditions of today is what students call the LSC chants. The Lecture Series Committee screens movies every weekend, and as previews of coming films roll, students chant the words that show up on the screen. “You can always tell if an MIT student or alum is in the audience at a commercial movie theater,” says Gabriel Phifer ‘02. “If something goes wrong with the film, you’ll hear someone shout out, LSC sucks.’”

MIT has always been known for its passion, intensity and creativity. And sometimes, when it’s hard to remember to look up and away to relieve that intensity, tradition steps in and demands attention.

“At a place like MIT, it’s easy to get emotionally bogged down in the daily grind of hard work,” says Richard Downey ‘94. “Witnessing a hack like that one [the car on the dome] is one of the things that can help you keep your faith in the human spirit.” And in the inventive nature of MIT students.

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