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The Great '06 Cannon Hack

A resourceful (and, of course, anonymous) group of MIT students pulls off a bicoastal prank.
September 8, 2006

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.

On April 6, 2006, Caltech’s Fleming cannon appeared in front of MIT’s Green Builing with a giant brass rat perched midway up its barrel. (Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT)

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.

The Third East hackers plunged ahead. In February, the brass-rat group began designing the ring, which it made in March with the help of MIT machine-shop employees. The hackers also launched their e-mail campaign in March and, to raise more money, acquired, through which they would sell commemorative T-shirts once the cannon arrived on campus. Meanwhile, six hackers prepared to travel to California and “appropriate” the cannon.

On Friday, March 24, the cannon group traveled to Pasa­dena, where it spent the weekend casing the location and building a large wooden frame to protect the cannon during transport. Shortly after 5:00 a.m. on March 28, in less than 15 minutes, the six-person team of hackers hitched the cannon to the back of a black GMC truck. At 5:28 a.m., Caltech security stopped the truck. The driver produced a seemingly genuine work order from a fictitious moving company, authorizing a temporary move of the cannon while a more permanent display platform was being constructed; security let the truck go. Twenty minutes later, a service mechanic reported to security that the cannon was heading east on California Boulevard, away from Caltech. Security searched the area, but the truck got away. Once off campus, the hackers packed the cannon in its protective crate, expecting to hand it off to the professional movers. There was just one problem: the movers backed out upon discovering how much the cannon weighed. A hastily found replacement wanted more money than the first movers, prompting another, last-minute round of e-mail fund-raising. The cannon started its long trip to Cambridge on March 29.

At Caltech, no one knew what had happened. People speculated that the cannon snatch was a prank, given that the 20th anniversary of the Harvey Mudd prank was March 29. (The MIT hackers claim that this was purely coincidental.) A theft report was filed on March 30. Some Caltech students wondered if it was an inside job, a conjecture endorsed by an editorial in Caltech’s student newspaper, which proclaimed the theft “obviously a hoax.” But Caltech officials weren’t convinced. Insiders would have kept school security in the loop, they reasoned, but security head Gregg ­Henderson had not been forewarned of the hack. He did, however, receive an anonymous phone call telling him the cannon was safe and that its whereabouts would soon be revealed.

The cannon arrived at MIT on March 31 but was kept in hiding until Campus Preview Weekend. Early on the morning of April 6, the cannon appeared in front of the Green Building, the giant brass rat perched midway up its barrel.

The hackers didn’t warn local authorities of the cannon’s arrival, but they wanted to assuage any concern that might be provoked by the appearance of a working gun in the heart of campus. (Fleming House regularly fires blanks from the cannon at graduation.) So they sent an explanatory e-mail to David Barber, an assistant officer in the Environment, Health, and Safety Office’s safety program, and to MIT’s police and facilities departments. “The hackers know who to send messages to,” Barber says, “and when the message is accompanied by photos and detailed documents about the nuts and bolts of the event, then we find them very reliable.”

The gun’s appearance caused a sensation, with such high-profile media outlets as National Public Radio and the London Times reporting on it. That it appeared at the beginning of Campus Preview Weekend didn’t hurt, either. “We made sure admissions office tours stopped at the cannon,” says ­Stuart Schmill, associate director of the admissions office.

Meanwhile, Fleming House students began organizing an effort to retrieve the cannon. They contacted alums and had received nearly $8,000 in contributions, according to Caltech vice president Tom Mannion, when the school president decided that Caltech would foot the bill. Two dozen students flew with Mannion to Boston, where–after proving ownership to the MIT Campus Police–they were allowed to tow the cannon away. After the cannon was safely secured on a tow truck, MIT students threw an impromptu barbecue for the Caltech contingent, during which students shared stories about the cannon’s cross-country trek. The retrieval set off even more media coverage, with most major television networks and even ESPN joining in.

Shortly after Caltech recovered the gun, Douglas hosted an unusual meeting at the MIT Museum with what she cryptically refers to as “a group of individuals who seemed terribly interested” in the cannon hack. “This is the first ‘21st-century’ hack,” she concludes. “Its style and mode of organization–a very large group, highly organized, with careful planning, subcontracting work, and interest in public relations–makes it qualitatively different from earlier hacks.”

One hacking tradition, however, remained inviolate. “The humor of this hack,” says Douglas. “That quality is one it shares with its predecessors.”

[For a timeline of the Caltech cannon hack, click here.]

Two-Ring Circus
How two icons were bejeweled

“Where would we get such a big ring?” the plotters asked themselves. It was 1979, and residents of Baker House were scheming to place a large brass rat on the finger of the John Harvard statue in Harvard Yard. Ricardo Sitchin ‘80 was taking a bronze-casting class at Wellesley, so he was nominated to make the ring. It “only took about 15 hours,” he recalls. On May 19, 1979, the “Smiling Six” used nondestructive epoxy glue to install the ring on John Harvard’s finger.

But when the Third East hackers needed a brass rat to mount on the Caltech cannon, they turned to 21st-century technology. This rat–12.5 inches tall and made of gilded milled aluminum–was produced on multiple milling machines at four MIT machine shops and required nearly 1,000 hours of labor.

“They told us it was a headlight bezel for the new solar-powered motorcycle,” says Gerry Wentworth, technical-services head at the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity. “We knew they were full of it, but we really didn’t know exactly what it was, either. The ring was made in sections, and we never saw the finished product until the cannon showed up at MIT.” Wentworth says the hackers pretty much handled the design work themselves but needed help with the machining and programming.

The hackers donated the ring to the MIT Museum. Says curator Deborah Douglas, “It’s the one hack artifact we expect to still have a century from now.” 

[Click here to see images of the 1979 and 2006 brass rat hacks.]

Timeline of the Caltech Cannon Hack

The following timeline was provided to Deborah Douglas, MIT Museum science and technology curator, by students familiar with the activities of “Howe & Ser,” the fictitious moving company that planned and carried out the Caltech cannon heist.

1. Timeline

- Initial idea came up in summer 2004 as a joke.

- Howe & Ser began in December 2005, when people realized that it might just be possible.

- Planning started in January 2006.

- The designing of the ring began in late February.

- 1,000 man-hours of ring machining took place over 9 days in the middle of March.

- Howe & Ser movers went to California over spring break to appropriate the cannon.

- Friday, March 24th: Left for Caltech

- Sunday, March 26th: Arrived and scouted out the area

- Monday, March 27th: Last minute construction and planning

- Tuesday, March 28th: The heist

- Wednesday, March 29th: Departed for home, 20th anniversary of Harvey Mudd stealing the cannon

- Thursday, March 30th: Caltech Security filed grand larceny report with the Pasadena Police for the missing cannon

- Friday, March 31st: Howe & Ser members returned to MIT with cannon

- Cannon appeared on campus in front of the Green building on the morning of April 6th, and the ring was put onto it.

- Cannon was retrieved by Fleming from campus on the morning of April 10th after the ring was removed; MIT students threw an impromptu barbeque for the occasion.

2. Stealing the Cannon

A six-person team from Howe & Ser loaded the cannon onto a truck in under 15 minutes shortly after 5 a.m. on Tuesday, March 28th. Shortly after departing, they were approached by Caltech Security. The “foreman” of the group presented them with forged documents explaining that the cannon was to be temporarily relocated to a parking lot while a more permanent display platform for the cannon was constructed. The security workers were convinced that the work orders were legitimate and proceeded to escort Howe & Ser, and the cannon, to the parking lot. Minutes later, the cannon was gone.

3. MIT Display

The cannon arrived on the MIT campus early on the morning of April 6th. Howe & Ser movers placed the cannon in its new location in front of the Green Building, pointed it at Caltech, put the ring on the cannon’s barrel, and installed a plaque commemorating the occasion.

The cannon remained in front of the Green Building for four days, during which many people visited and took pictures with the cannon, including the College Cannon Coeds, the MIT Campus Police, and many news agencies.

4. Caltech Reclaims Its Property

Caltech students from Fleming House arrived on MIT’s campus on April 8th and 9th and began planning the return of the cannon. Howe & Ser movers took notice of Fleming’s scouts early on the morning of April 10th and decided to throw a party for the students who came to retrieve the cannon.

At 7 a.m. on April 10th, around 30 Fleming students and alums manually moved the cannon to the street where a tow truck was waiting while MIT students looked on. The tow truck driver winched the cannon onto the back of the truck and secured it, and then left. Afterwards, the Caltech students and MIT students enjoyed a barbeque and music, and shared stories about the cannon’s journey across the country.

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