Hacking at the Royal Institution

Charlotte New

Charlotte New, our curator of collections, explores the history of the Ri and hacking ahead of our 2014 Sparks will Fly CHRISTMAS LECTURES.

Read time: 5 minutes
Nevil Maskelyne (1863–1924), British magician and inventor.
Royal Institution

To Hack – is to cut with rough / heavy blows or to gain unauthorized access to data in a system or computer. For most people ‘Hacking’ automatically generates a negative response, a modern phenomenon that usually includes celebrities, banking or email data but actually as long as there have been developments in technology there have been people around to test for weaknesses or come up with improvements. It was seen as a duty of care in order to not let the public be fooled.

The first public display of hacking took place as far back as 1903 at the Royal Institution.  An afternoon lecture was about to start. It was due to be presented by a young physicist, John Ambrose Fleming and was to feature a demonstration of a new technology of the age: a long-range wireless communication system pioneered by the Italian radio engineer Guglielmo Marconi. The lecture was to include Fleming receiving a message sent by Marconi from his station in Cornwall. The aim was to showcase publicly for the first time that Morse code messages could be sent wirelessly over long distances and more importantly securely. Not all went to plan however.

Photograph of John Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945), electrical engineer and physicist and consultant to the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company.
Credit: Royal Institution

Marconi was immensely proud of his wireless system. He dreamed of its contribution to the betterment of mankind, but as a shrewd businessman he also knew of his inventions value in financial terms and the promise of security could only add to this. He boasted to all who would listen in the St James Gazette February 1903 “I can tune my instruments so that no other that is not similarly tuned can tap my messages”. The financial bounty that Marconi was set to earn would certainly came at the cost of the existing wired telegraph companies who had sunk millions into land and sea cabling in order allow messages to be sent around the world. As Marconi began to patent parts of his system these telegraph companies realised that their long-term investments maybe for nothing if a secure wireless technology had been created. One communication company decided to act and took the opportunity to employ a young telegraph enthusiast to test Marconi’s new unbreakable wireless system.

Neville Maskelyne was a British music hall magician who had already undertaken some telegraph experiments. He was keen to see whether Marconi’s system was truly as groundbreaking as he claimed. The Eastern Telegraph Company’s tasked Maskelyne, to set about the business of breaking into the secure communications. He started his task by building a 50 metre radio mast on the cliffs of Porthcurno to see if he could intercept Marconi’s company messages being sent to vessels at sea. He succeeded quite easily and soon realised that without tuned equipment it was relatively easy to intercept a signal without anyone knowing. 

A few months later back at the Ri, an expectant audience was waiting for the young Fleming to organise his equipment in the lecture theatre, when the apparatus suddenly began to tap out a message. To the audience it sounded just like a rhythmic tapping noise but to Fleming and his assistant it was a clear message and not the one they were expecting. At first the message spelled out just one word repeated over and over ‘Rats, Rats, Rats’. Then it changed to a poem accusing Marconi of "diddling the public” - there was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quiet prettily (further lines followed).  It was obvious to the lecturer that the demonstration had been hacked.

The obscure message that had mysteriously arrived suddenly stopped shortly before Marconi’s signal from Cornwall arrived, however the damage was done. If someone could interrupt the inventor of the apparatus while he was showcasing it to the public then no message could be safe. Fleming was incensed at the intrusion on his friends breakthrough and wrote a strongly worded letter to the Times calling the act of hacking ‘scientific hooliganism’. Desperate to know how and what had happened Fleming appealed to the Times readers to unmask the culprit responsible. This proved to be an unnecessary task as Maskelyne was quite happy to reveal his part in his own letter to the Times four days later, justifying his act on the grounds that the public needed to know that there were flaws to this secure system.

Photograph of Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), Italian inventor and electrical engineer and often described as the "nventor of radio.
Credit: Smithsonian Institute

This year’s CHRISTMAS LECTURES brings hacking full circle and back to the Royal Institution. Prof Danielle George will demonstrate how a revolution is happening across the world and how we can all take part. They focus on three everyday objects; the lightbulb, the telephone and a motor and aim to start an imaginitive, creative process, solve problems and turn them into something world-changing. Tinkering with everyday objects you can find around the house and transforming them into new extraordinary creations, adapting them for the 21st century.

Anything could happen. Sparks will fly.