The time, December of 1999, the website, Slashdot.org (before social media, it was this or nothing). Slashdot conducted a poll among readers asking them to vote by popular thread on the ten greatest hacks of all time. And today, anybody who was born by then is about to enter the workforce at the least, giving us a nice even generation between that time and the present.
This list tells us things about hacker culture and how much the world has changed in just eighteen years. It’s also pretty liberal about the application of the word “hack,” so some of these results will elicit a puzzled shrug at best. But the remainder are very telling, more than enough to make up for it.
While the story of how the public reacted to a sci-fi radio broadcast in 1938 seems quaint now (and almost certainly exaggerated), we’re fooling ourselves if we think modern audiences can tell fiction from reality. Thanks to our modern-day concerns over fake news, plus the birth of “reality” TV (which is mostly staged, scripted, or made up), people seem to have a harder time divining the truth than ever. Sorry, but the Internet, a powerful tool for fact-checking and education, turned out to be equally good at blasting nonsense. The nonsense won.
By the way, if you at all doubt what we said up there about reality TV, here’s Charlie Brooker to set you straight:
One big lie. Every reality show you’ve ever seen. Millions believe it like gospel. For that matter, millions of people swear by news stories they found on The Onion even though it’s a satirical site that tells you it’s all fiction. If anything, we’ve gone straight downhill on a rocket sled since 1938. Telling a fictional story and convincing people it’s real isn’t even a “hack” any more, it should just be called “what any kid can do on 4chan.”
The Mars Pathfinder mission had only landed in 1997, and was still fresh in the public mind. Naturally, it needs no introduction here.
While the human conquest of space has certainly made some leaps and bounds since then, time has not tarnished the Mars Pathfinder’s crown in the slightest. It was the first time a man-made object had driven around on another planet, and the innovative way they delivered the plucky payload was a major engineering feat. It well exceeded its expected lifespan. We’re still profiting from the data it gathered. Pathfinder broke important ground for the Curiosity rover, which is still going strong.
So long ago and obscure, it apparently isn’t notable enough for Wikipedia so we have to track down Ken Thompson himself on the matter. Briefly, Thompson, in writing the original “cc” compiler for the C programming language, wrote code so any login routine compiled using his compiler would install a backdoor with a secret password known only to him. Of course, if you knew about the backdoor, you could just rewrite a new version of the open source cc compiler and remove the backdoor code. But Thompson thought of that ahead of time, so the compiler also has code to recognize when it’s compiling a new version of itself and insert the code to leave the backdoor intact – plus the code to do it all again.
It’s been decades since this hack was current, and supposedly all compromised logins from Thompson’s hack have since been expunged from our modern gene pool. Ha ha, sure, and we’re all set for the year 2038 problem too, right?
In any case, Thompson’s compiler stunt was a product of its times. It was much more robust in the 1970s, when anybody who had access to exploit it would have generally been tenured staff anyway. Nobody would dare leave an exploitable backdoor in login code in this day and age, because such stunts are many times easier to sniff out and publicize. If anything, Thompson’s hack is still impressive for being pioneering, but over time it’s somewhat diminished by more sophisticated stunts and changing attitudes toward them now.
What, a gun? Yes, a gun, it turned out, squeaked into the poll and got just enough votes to make it. At the time, it was considered a feat for it to still be used 52 years later; now it’s been seven decades and it’s still the most popular assault rifle in history.
And it’s not because it’s the best gun, or the most accurate, or the most powerful, or even the most durable. The AK-47 succeeds at one thing only: Being cheap to mass-produce and repair. Every other metric is “good enough,” in consideration, for field work. We can’t help but consider this never would have made it into the poll at any other time in history. Still, if you need to arm a soldier really fast and inexpensively, you still can’t beat an AK-47.
From guns to cyphers, Bletchley Park was the home of the British codebreakers who cracked enemy codes during WWII. The UK set up this site for teams of mathematicians, led by Alan Turing, to crack the German’s Enigma codes. And it was all done mostly with pencils, papers, and brains.
While Turing’s contributions to computing need no introduction here, and this was certainly an immeasurable feat for its time, modern cryptography has left the Enigma machine and those who would guess its secrets by brute force far behind in the dust. The fact that Enigma’s codes could be hacked in reasonable time at all speaks more for the standard of encryption at the time than the skill of the hackers. Just to show how primitive Enigma is by today’s standards, you can emulate an Enigma machine on an Arduino:
There’s even a whole YouTube channel for this.
Yes, the programming language. What can we say about Perl that hasn’t been said already? We could point out that Perl didn’t survive very far onto the mobile programming platform, but that’s been pointed out already. We could point out that Perl still looks like a cartoon character swearing, but everybody’s made jokes about Perl’s syntax before. Here’s Larry Wall’s own thoughts on creating Perl:
The years just haven’t been kind to Perl or Unix-native scripted languages in general. While Perl still thrives on the server and on the back-end code for several popular websites, its heyday is long behind it. In 1999, you could hardly get a tech job without Perl. Now it seldom makes the top ten for recommended languages for new students.
Once upon a time, kids, there was this culture called “the demoscene,” where crews of hackers competed to create the flashiest machine-code program in the smallest possible space running on old PC boxes like Amigas and Ataris. Shaking our collective editorial fists at the sky, we vow one day to do one of our magical nostalgia articles on the demoscene era, because it was an amazing time in hacker history. In the meantime, here’s “Second Reality” by the hacking group Future Crew, as it would play on a PC:
OK, maybe it’s not so impressive now, compared to the latest movie. But come on, this was put together on a 1993 desktop PC, without access to 3D acceleration, crammed into just a few megabytes, and using Dolby Surround Sound. It was built on and ran on a computer less powerful than even your grandmother’s cell phone now. That’s got to be worth some respect.
Speaking of computers less powerful than your grandmother’s cell phone now… The original Apple II was an amazing achievement for its time in 1977. It basically led the home PC revolution. We can’t possibly diminish Steve Wozniac’s accomplishment with this, since he basically built and programmed the whole machine himself. The Wizard of Woz is still around these days, by the way, and he runs a nice friendly site right here. Drop by and give him a toodle-oo.
Yes, the airplane. While we’ve wandered yet again far of the focus on the present site, we can’t diminish the Blackbird’s achievement for being a plane designed in the 1960s that set the standard in aerospace design for decades. Far into the 1990s, it was the world’s fastest and highest-flying manned aircraft. Since then, Lockheed’s models have kept much of the SR-71‘s DNA. It must be poetry to fly. Onward…
We all know about it now from the 1995 film of the same name. Doubtless, it being fresh on the minds of Slashdot denizens contributed to its popularity at the time. In brief, the original Apollo 13 mission went awry due to damage to the Service Module, causing the abort of the original mission and changing it to “get the astronauts safely back home.” This led to both the crew and the ground team working frantically around the clock coming up with all manner of ad-hoc solutions to new snags as they came up.
And out of all the famous hacks in history, the Apollo 13 mission deserves to stand as one of the truest standards of the definition of the word “hack.” At the end of the day, a hacker is an engineer and an engineer solves problems. Engineers have to live in the real world and work with what they’ve got, which isn’t always the most opportune situation. Grace, and genius, under pressure is exactly what makes a hacker a hacker.
That’s the whole list. Inspiring? We hope so. And perhaps we can emulate it by holding an updated contest for the greatest hack…