Arts & Culture

The birth of the hacker

You can quote them: did “hacker” start out as a good thing or a bad thing?

Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is working on the second edition of the Yale Book of Quotations.

Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon.

Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon.

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In my last column I discussed the origins of three words incubated in three old and prestigious colleges—preppy, jock, and wonk, apparently contributed to the world by some combination of Harvard and Princeton, with a lesser role by Yale. They are not the only college words that have gone on to prominence in non-collegiate culture, nor are the Big Three schools the only ones to succeed at linguistic creativity.

A very different kind of school is the more specialized, less aristocratic Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and its signature word for a group of students has become a major and controversial label in worldwide discourse. Hacker has deep roots in MIT’s ethos. It also has a bifurcated, contradictory set of connotations—both in its origins at the institution that gave it birth and in the larger realm.

Hacker is a debated word today because of its two meanings, related but ethically opposite; the proponents of its benign meaning insist that the more sinister signification is a later perversion. The first definition, said to be the older and “correct” one, is “an expert at programming and solving problems with a computer” (Merriam-Webster). The second, contested definition is given by Merriam as “a person who illegally gains access to and sometimes tampers with information in a computer system.” As the latter interpretation has become extremely well known, computing purists have introduced cracker as a replacement name for the technocriminals.

In fact, the malicious connotations of hacker were present very early. MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech, printed the following passage on November 20, 1963:

Many telephone services have been curtailed because of so-called hackers.… The hackers have accomplished such things as tying up all the tie-lines between Harvard and MIT, or making long-distance calls by charging them to a local radar installation.

This kind of telephone vandalism was called “phone phreaking.” Computer historians believe the phone-phreaking subculture led directly to the modern culture of computer-security “crackers.” But the Tech archives also yield early mentions of vending machine hacking (1972), fire-alarm hacking (1973), and elevator hacking (1974).

As a past MIT undergraduate myself, I can attest that the malicious meaning of hacker was widespread in the early 1970s. I argued in the past that the 1963 citation proved that the sinister meaning is as old as or older than the benign one. But a more recent discovery undercut that theory: Jesse Sheidlower, former principal North American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, found that the 1959 first edition of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club Dictionary included hack and hacker—with definitions involving non-malicious messing around.

The hacker saga reminds me of the most colorful tale of computing etymology, previously discussed in this column: the pioneering programmer Grace Murray Hopper ’34PhD is popularly credited as the coiner of the word bug, meaning a defect in computer hardware or software, because she once found a moth that was interfering with some computer circuitry. Not only did Hopper not coin the word, but that sense of bug was only a computer application of a general engineering term that can be traced back to Edison. Similarly, hacker began with pranksters who tampered with all sorts of machinery, from telephones to elevators. But once applied to computers, both bug and hacker exploded into the larger culture—thanks to the computing revolution.

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