10 Pioneering Hackers Preceding the Home Computer Age

Hackers have existed for much longer than you might think. The Internet didn’t start it all – people have been breaking codes and hacking into networks as long as it has been possible.

Even before computers, hackers were already around, infiltrating phone networks, punch-card machines, and even telegraphs. Some hackers pursued their skills for personal gain, while others did so for more humanitarian purposes. And of course, a few just hacked for the sake of pranking others.

10 Nevil Maskelyne Hacked A Wireless Telegraph Demonstration: 1903

Shortly after hacking became physically possible, someone did it. That someone was Nevil Maskelyne, the first hacker in history, and he hacked into a live telegraph demonstration in 1903.

Maskelyne didn’t wait for wireless telegraphs to hit the market; he hacked into one of the first demonstrations. Guglielmo Marconi, its creator, was holding a presentation to demonstrate its security and privacy. Marconi wanted to prove that his wireless telegraphs were secure and anything sent through them would remain private.

But as the presentation began, the telegraph started tapping out a strange message. It continuously beeped the word “Rats” and began sending a limerick that mocked Marconi. Maskelyne had publicly humiliated Marconi. It didn’t take long for Marconi to discover the culprit – Maskelyne wrote papers bragging about what he’d done. He insisted he did it for the greater good, to show the public that their information would not remain private if they used wireless telegraphs.

9 Rene Carmille Hacked The Nazi’s Database Of French Jews: 1940

Rene Carmille is often referred to as the “first ethical hacker” in history, and he truly lived up to this title. As a member of the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France, Carmille used his hacking skills to save numerous Jewish lives.

Carmille was an expert in punch-card computers, and he owned the machines that the Vichy government of France used for processing information. When the Nazis seized control, he discovered that they were using these machines to track down and locate Jews. Carmille decided to volunteer his machines to the Nazis, but with an ulterior motive. He hacked his own computer systems so that regardless of what the Nazis inputted, no individual would be labeled as Jewish.

For over two years, Carmille managed to convince the Nazis that he had no idea why the machines were malfunctioning. However, when they eventually discovered his actions, they sentenced him to the brutal Dachau concentration camp. Carmille may have lost his life, but his hacking had already saved thousands of lives.

8 David Condon Was The First Phone Phreak: 1955

During the 1960s and 1970s, a community of people called phone phreaks emerged, who hacked into telephone networks. By playing specific sounds into phones, they discovered they could connect to various parts of the network. While many phone phreaks used this trick to make free phone calls, its implications went far beyond. In fact, in the 1990s, one phone phreak even convinced a judge that he could hack into nuclear codes.

The individual who discovered this technique, as far as anyone knows, was David Condon. In 1955, Condon tested this theory by whistling his Davy Crockett Cat and Canary Bird Call Flute into a phone system for the first time.

This whistle emitted a secret code that was recognized by the telephone system. The system assumed he was an employee, connecting him to a long-distance operator who would then connect him to any phone number he wanted, assuming she was speaking to a colleague. Condon used this trick to save money on long-distance phone calls, inadvertently laying the foundation for an entire movement. Phone phreaks would eventually evolve into the first computer hackers, and none of it would have existed without one man and a toy flute.

7 Joybubbles Was The First Person To Hack By Whistling: 1957

While Condon may have been the first phone phreak, he wasn’t the one who initiated the movement. That distinction goes to Joe Engressia, better known as “Joybubbles.”

Joybubbles, a blind genius with perfect pitch, could flawlessly imitate any note he heard. At just seven years old, he figured out how to harness this skill to hack into phone systems. By simply pursing his lips and whistling, his phone would connect anywhere he wanted.

Joybubbles even charged his friends $1 to hack into their phones and enable them to make free long-distance calls. In 1971, an article about Joybubbles and the phone phreak scene in Esquire magazine turned him into a minor celebrity.

The article brought him both attention and trouble – Joybubbles was arrested for fraud that same year. The even stranger part is that Joybubbles claimed he purposefully got himself arrested, as he believed it would lead to a job offer from a telecom company looking to hire him for security purposes.

6 Allan Scherr Was The First Person To Hack A Computer Password: 1962

The very first computer that required a password for protection was also the first to be hacked. Allan Scherr was responsible for this, and he did it repeatedly.

In 1962, MIT implemented the first computer passwords. They had a limited number of computers that students had to share, and they wanted to ensure some level of privacy. Consequently, they required students to log in with a password. To prevent individuals from hogging the machines, they placed a daily four-hour time limit on each account.

Allan Scherr quickly grew frustrated with this time limit and devised a method to bypass it. He created a punch card that tricked the computer into printing all the passwords and then used those to log in as other people once his time was up.

Scherr even shared the passwords with his friends, and together, they became the first computer trolls. They used the passwords to hack into their teacher’s account and leave messages to mock him.

5 MIT Phone Phreaks Were The First People Called ‘Hackers’: 1963

The first individual to use the term “hacker” was MIT professor Carlton Tucker, and he didn’t mean it in a positive way.

In 1963, MIT was bombarded by a group of phone phreaks. They broke into the school’s phone network and flooded it with calls to Harvard, rendering it impossible for anyone to make a call. They then proceeded to make various random long-distance calls and charge the costs to a radar facility, largely as a means of annoyance.

Tucker, enraged by their actions, used a term that would change history. While “hack” was already in use at MIT to refer to electronics work, Tucker directed it at the phone phreaks. He called them “hackers” for the first time, accompanied by a stern warning that anyone caught hacking would likely face jail time.

4 RABBITS Was Probably The First Computer Virus: 1969

The first computer virus in history was likely a program called RABBITS. No one knows who created it or the reason behind it, but it successfully brought down the University of Washington Computer Center.

RABBITS was a small, inconspicuous program that replicated itself quickly, just like real rabbits. In 1969, someone introduced it onto a computer at the university, causing it to self-replicate until the computer system crashed.

Five years later, someone familiar with this story created their own version, a rabbit virus known as Wabbit, and unleashed it on APRANET, an early version of the Internet, to disrupt another user. Thus, the first-ever computer virus was employed for the first-ever denial of service attack.

3 Ray Tomlinson And Bob Thomas Put The First Virus On The Internet: 1971

The first person to send a virus through e-mail was Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of e-mail.

Known as Creeper, it was the first-ever computer worm, a program that self-replicated and spread across ARPANET. Each occurrence of the worm prompted a message to pop up on terminals, saying, “I’m the creeper: Catch me if you can.”

Bob Thomas, one of Tomlinson’s colleagues, actually created the virus. However, Thomas kept it relatively harmless, causing the file to travel from computer to computer and delete itself after each cycle.

Tomlinson, on the other hand, modified it so that instead of deleting itself, it would overwhelm a computer until it ceased to function. Almost as soon as the Internet was invented, Tomlinson had unleashed the first virus to bring it down.

So, the next time you receive spam or viruses in your inbox, realize that your e-mail account is functioning exactly as its creator intended.

2 Steve Jobs And Steve Wozniak Got Their Start As Hackers: 1971

Prior to amassing their fortunes selling computers and iPods, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak began their journey as something else entirely – phone system hackers.

Wozniak read an article about Joybubbles and the phone phreaks in Esquire magazine, finding it absolutely thrilling. He even sought out one of the phone phreaks mentioned in the article, John “Captain Crunch” Draper, and invited him to his house.

After learning how to hack phone systems from Captain Crunch, Wozniak developed a device called a blue box, which made hacking into phone systems more accessible. He began using it himself, and at one point, even pretended to be Henry Kissinger to prank call the Pope.

When Wozniak shared his hacking endeavors with his friend Steve Jobs, Jobs recognized the potential for profit. The two began mass-producing and selling the blue box to their classmates, with Wozniak handling the technology and Jobs managing sales. And that’s how Apple was born – with the founders of the world’s largest company making money through scamming phone companies.

1 John Walker Created The First Trojan Horse Virus: 1975

Two years before home computers hit the market, John Walker tricked individuals into installing a virus on their computers.

Although Walker may have created a computer virus, he insists that he did it with good intentions. He had developed a popular computer game called ANIMAL, which could accurately guess the animal the player was thinking of. The game gained immense popularity, with everyone wanting a copy.

However, sharing the game in 1975 meant physically writing it onto magnetic tapes and mailing them, which was both inconvenient and time-consuming. Walker realized that since everyone wanted his game anyway, he could simply infect every computer possible with it without their knowledge.

He updated the game so that it would make copies of itself on every directory it could find while players were enjoying it. This meant it would duplicate itself onto other users’ directories and any tapes inserted into the computer. If someone took that tape and used it on another computer, that computer would also become infected. Essentially, anyone who asked Walker for a copy likely already had one.

Walker insists that he did it out of kindness but also to show people “what could have happened if I were not a nice guy.” So, perhaps, his intentions were partially altruistic and partly about instilling fear in people.

Mark Oliver

Mark Oliver is a regular contributor to Aonzin. His writing also appears on a number of other sites, including The Onion’s StarWipe and His website is regularly updated with everything he writes.


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