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At MIT, how the hack they did it

A life-size fiberglass cow is one of the standouts -- how could it not be? -- in the one-room gallery at MIT showcasing those daredevilish student pranks known as "hacks." The bovine, in particular, tends to prompt two inquiries from visitors:

How did the hackers manage to "borrow" the cow from the Hilltop Steak House in Saugus back in 1979?

And how did MIT Museum officials corral it a second time?

The answer to the second is: The restaurant donated it when the original hack exhibit opened at the MIT Museum nearly a decade ago. "They had some extras and very nicely gave one to us," said Donald Stidsen, the museum's manager of exhibitions.

Two years after that display closed, the hacks are back -- temporarily. By popular demand, the museum has mounted a free exhibit that runs through Sept. 5 in MIT's Compton Gallery. More than 9,000 have visited this hack-a-rama since it opened in June, according to museum officials. "We've had a huge response," Stidsen said, noting that in the summer the campus attracts many tourists, including Asian visitors by the busload and potential students and their families.

A selection of the most memorable hack artifacts is here, along with photographs and descriptions. The show topper is the mock MIT police cruiser -- complete with flashing blue lights -- that hackers placed atop the "great dome" on Building 10 in 1994. (The familiar classical dome is a favorite hacker target.) The hackers somehow evaded the alarm system to assemble the exterior parts of an old Chevrolet Cavalier and attach it to a wooden frame -- on the roof, all in the course of one night.

"They are MIT students," was Stidsen's response when asked how the hack they did that.

The vehicle, which an admiring Stidsen has taken apart and put together four times, is also a prime example of the hack sense of whimsy and attention to detail -- whether or not those details are visible to the outside world. With the car up on the roof, no one could have noticed the dummy behind the wheel dressed as a police officer with a box of doughnuts and a toy gun, or the yellow sign on the back window, "I Brake for Donuts." But now it can be appreciated up close.

Other hack faves are also here, such as the fire hydrant water fountain. Hackers in 1991 fashioned the contraption -- they rigged it so that, by pressing the fountain's lever, you could drink from the attached MIT fire hose -- as tribute to former MIT President Jerome Wiesner and his often-recited quote, "getting an education at MIT is like taking a drink from a fire hose."

Does the MIT administration frown on this sort of thing? "In general, they are pretty accepting of it, as long as there is no threat of danger involved," Stidsen said. "The ethics of a hack is, don't damage anything, don't create any danger." There is also a facilities crew on campus, he added, to specifically deal with hacks. Many of the hacks are timed for finals, as a way to relieve stress.

There is also a hackers club on campus, with members giving tours of tunnels and roofs and "just around, where it is [officially] not allowed," he said.

Hackers' creative humor is also visible at the gallery. A display case houses three cards from "Al Gore's Buzzword Bingo." Hackers made up the cards with buzzwords such as "hybrid" and "paradigm" for the 1996 commencement. Students would place a marker on the words that then-Vice President Gore used in his address. There's also the menu for the "Biohazard Cafe," with items like Lab Mice on Rice and Soylent Green. And a red T-shirt, "Better Dead than Crimson."

Harvard is a frequent hack target (hackers once glued an MIT ring on the John Harvard statue in Harvard Yard). In one alcove is a banner that reads HU GE EGO HARVARD. What's that all about? Stidsen was asked.

Stidsen didn't know. "We didn't put that one up," he said. "The hackers club, I assume, put it in there."

"The Hacks Are Back" exhibit is open weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the gallery located -- most appropriately -- at 77 Mass. Ave., Building 10, under the central dome. Call 617-253-5927 for more information or visit For information on MIT hacks, visit

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