Hacking History: Nevil Maskelyne

Hacking History: Nevil Maskelyne


We associate hackers with the most modern technologies, espionage and internet warfare, but hacking began long before the home computer was even conceptualized. You may have heard of the inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi. As the inventor of the wireless radio, he was a controversial figure in a few regards. Those in the wired radio business were obviously upset, as wireless radios would surely (as they did) put them out of business. For Nevil Maskelyne (magician, inventor and skeptic) it was Guglielmo’s abundant confidence, and deceiving claims, that pushed him to pioneer hacking history.

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Nevil Maskelyne had a fascinating history. I’ll spare too many details and mention that he invented a plethora of magic tricks (best known for his levitation act), wrote a book (still revered by card sharks and magicians today) called Sharps and Flats and organized the Magic Circle Occult Committee in an effort to disprove claims of supernatural powers. He also invented the first British Typewriter to use an ink pad rather than ribbon. In short, Nevil Maskelyne had a colorful, but in his own right controversial, reputation himself.

So how did these two collide and when does the hacking come in? Well, in 1903 on a June afternoon, Guglielmo Marconi and his partner John Ambrose Fleming were set to perform their first public presentation of their wireless radio, at the Royal Institution in London. Marconi had previously made a public statement regarding his wireless radio as impossible to intercept or interfere with. At this remark, Nevil Maskelyne raised an eye brow and devised a plan.

The First Moment of Hacking History

Fleming was adjusting the apparatus in preparation for his and Marconi’s demonstration of sending Morse code, wirelessly, over long distances for the first time in history– when it happened. The apparatus began to tap out a message. An untrained ear wouldn’t have known what was happening, but Fleming knew exactly what was occurring. Strong wireless pulses were interfering with the projector’s electric arc discharge lamp. It was message in Morse code relaying a single word repeatedly “Rats. Rats. Rats.” After a period of this rats loop, a poem was communicated saying “There was a young fellow from Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily…” It was immediately apparent; they were being trolled. (Of course, that was not the terminology of the day.)

Marconi published an incredulous article in The Times stating his distaste for said trolling; calling it, “an outrage against the traditions of the Royal Institution”. Nevil Maskelyne, who had gladly revealed his identity prior, published his open letter to The Times defending his actions on the grounds of public welfare, having exhibited the inherent security flaws in Marconi’s allegedly un-tapable wireless radio system. Marcconi had claimed that his wireless transmitter broadcasted on a precise wavelength deeming the devices ability for confidentiality. Maskelyne considered this lie abusive, making him what we would call today a “Whistle Blower”.

The first hacker. The first technology troll. And one of our first recorded whistle blowers. Nevil Maskelyne left quite a legacy for truth seekers, along with his countless publications, inventions and performances. If he were alive today, we’d consider him a grey hat hacker, or maybe even hacktivist; either way, he’s undoubtedly the original whistle-blower.

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