Nevile Maskelyne: The World’s First Hacker

The term ‘hack’ or ‘hacker’ has become part of the lexicon in most of the developed world. When you think of hacking, usually your conjures images of criminals stealing your information of nerds in basements trying to find evidence of aliens, but the concept got a lot further back than most would think.

Our story starts in 1885 with a man called Guglielmo Marconi and the work he was doing on wireless transmission. He was the first to send signal in Morse code through the air on the coast of Cornwall to a tower located in France several miles away. This is widely accepted as the very first wireless communication ever sent.

Not only did Marconi create the first wireless communication but he was the first to patent it too; meaning anyone who wanted to send information using radio waves would have to pay him a licence fee. This angered many who were also working in the area of wireless transmission at the time, one of them being a magician and inventor called Nevil Maskelyne, who used Morse code and radio waves in his performances to leave the audience in astonishment. Maskelyne was especially displeased as he had just built a 50ft mast in Cornwall himself; which ultimately created a feud between the two inventors.

Marconi working on a mass communications system

As a show of his new invention and the impact it may have on the world, Marconi organised a demonstration in which he would send a wireless transmission (Written in Morse code) from Cornwall to Chelmsford and then beamed into the awaiting audience in the Royal Institute in London. It was to be a humongous scientific feat, demonstration the power of new technology and commutations on the dawn of the new century, however all didn’t go according to plan.

Marconi thought that his messages couldn’t be intercepted, which of course would be a massive jump forward in communications technology, however his messages were just tuned to specific frequency’s, much like how a radio works. Maskelyne used this to his advantage and at the beginning of the demonstration a faint tapping was heard, but this was entirely unplanned. The message repeated the work ‘rat’, ‘rat’, ‘rat’ and then made derogatory statements about Marconi in Morse code.

Maskelyne had set up a transmitter in a nearby music hall and was beaming the messaged on a broad spectrum, so not only would it be picked up in the Royal Institution, but by receptors for miles around.

The stunt caused an outcry by the wider scientific community, with Alexander Fleming calling it in a letter to the Times “Scientific Vandalism!”. Although Maskelyne had his reputation damaged, history will remember him as the world’s first hacker.

By Ryan Pointon

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