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MIT hacks

A 2 story icicle against a brick wallAs I noted in a footnote to an earlier blog entry, there's a longstanding tradition of "hacks" at MIT - practical jokes and pranks. I've been involved in a couple of them myself. One of them was way back in 1960, and involved construction of the icicle shown to the left, shown in a photograph taken from the MIT student newspaper The Tech.

It took me more than 45 years to perpetrate another hack. It was also reported in The Tech, in an article I submitted for the "Campus Life" section of the May 13, 2014 issue, called STILL HACKING AFTER ALL THESE YEARS: Hidden in “plane” sight.

I'll get to the more recent hack later, but first, the icicle, which was the subject of a report on the front page of the January 15, 1960 issue of The Tech, under the heading, "Giant Icicle at Baker House Draws National Press Attention". Note 1  It noted that:

 "[Robert] Ratner, with the help of William Tobin, built a four-story icicle down the wall of Baker house. Other students involved in the project were Stephen Raphael, Michael Bertin, and Lawrence Krakauer. The icicle made news across the country, appearing in the New York Times and the Christian science Monitor, as well as local newspapers. In addition, the story was carried by UPI and AP wire services, Fox Movietone and Telenews newsreels, John Daly's news broadcast (ABC–TV) and the Huntley–Brinkley report (NBC–TV)."

The story included some other nonsense which I think Ratner made up just to keep the fad in the news for a while. It said:

 Following the nationwide publicity given to the Baker house icicle last week, an MIT Icicle Association has been formed, with chapters at other schools. The stated goal of the Association, according to icicle grower Robert Ratner, is "bigger and better icicles". Other chapters in the recently formed Icicle Association are at Tufts and Northeastern. Although it is rumored that a varsity icicle growing contest with Northeastern may take place, Ratner did not report any definite plans at this time.

Despite the above nonsense, I don't think the icicle Association went anywhere, and in fact I'm not sure it ever actually existed at all.

The picture to the left shows the icicle after it had largely melted. You'll note that it appears to start at a random point on the wall, when in fact its origin was at a window, and it was four stories high, not two. MIT initially objected to the icicle, thinking (probably with some justification) that it was hazardous. They told us to knock it down.

But when it started getting national publicity, they suddenly changed their tune, and told us to leave it for a while. MIT is always happy to get news coverage that emphasizes how clever their students are. If my memory serves, it was Steve Raphael (always rather a promoter) who made numerous telephone calls to notify the local news outlets. They in turn put the story up on the wire services.

Once the story went national, I got a call from a reporter from my hometown newspaper, the Great Neck Record. After he interviewed me, I became part of a story printed in that newspaper, which my mother duly cut out and pasted into a scrapbook.

I still have that page of the scrapbook, the article yellowed with age. You can see the article's header below. Note at the top that in 1960, the Great Neck Record apparently cost five cents a copy. I think my parents had a subscription:

Great Neck Record headline, 'Great Neck Collegians Credited With Starting Two Campus Fads'

The part of the article relating to me reads as follows. Reading it today, I'm rather struck by the enormous number of typographical and other errors in it. There are certain readers of my blog who are eagle-eyed proofreaders - you know who you are. Don't get too excited reading the following text, as I've deliberately preserved all of the typos:

 Larry KRAKAUER, son of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Krakauer of 928 Middle Neck Rd., Great Neck, started a new fad at MIT when he built a four-story-high icicle at his dormitory, The Baker House, at Cambridge, Mass.

... Krakauer's icicles, looking like giant stalactites, were built with engineering like precision

When a janitor started to chop down the mammoth ice cube Krakauer and his colleagues, who expect icicle-building to even surpass telephone booth crowding as a campus fad, protested bitterly:

"It isn't easy to build one of those things" said Krakauer: "We had to figure the whole thing out with a slide rule. Let the water trickled to fast and your icicle melts beneath you. Let it trickle too slow and it doesn't build up. We had to sue slide rules, rubber tubing for siphoning, and other implements to build that monster. Yes, pure science went into that project.

The secret of building a giant icicle lies in the construction of a proper base fo the entire mass.

Krakauer, with a penchant for aiding science has revealed his secret to the world.

"You tie an ice cube onto a string, lower it from a window and the you let a trickle of water roll down the string."

An epidemic of fiant icicles are expected to leave the college campuses of America looking like something left in the wake of a glacial age.

You might note that I rather hammed it up for the interviewer, in the general lighthearted spirit of the entire event. I mentioned a "slide rule" to emphasize that actual mathematical calculations were involved - now it just sounds rather retro, for readers who even know what a slide rule is (if not, Google it). If you'd like, you can click here to see the whole article (then click again to enlarge it). Note 2

My recollection is that the Great Neck Record picked up the story from one of the wire services, UPI ("United Press International") or AP ("Associated Press"), having noted that one of the participants came from Great Neck. But Margie wonders if my mother, Rose Krakauer, had something to do with notifying the local paper. On reviewing this entry, Margie wrote in the margin, "The original story credited Bob Ratner and Bill Tobin with the icicle, but the Great Neck Record seemed to think that you were the star of the story. That sounds like Rose."

As I noted above, it took me over 45 years to perpetrate another MIT hack, which involved inserting a humorous sign into an empty display case on campus. I reported on it in my blog entry MIT scenes, which I recently adapted into an article for the Campus Life section of The Tech. Below, the top part of the online version of the article - click on it if you want to see the whole thing on the The Tech site.

Start of The Tech article, with photo of sign

Still hacking after all these years.

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© 2014 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted May 15, 2014

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   Click the next link if you want to see the front page of the 1/15/60 edition of The Tech in PDF form.   [return to text]

Note 2:   The errors, including errors in the entire article, not just the sentences I quoted: One sentence has an extraneous "the". The final sentence has an "are" which should be an "is". The article misspells "laugh" as "laught", "too" as "to", "use" as "sue", "for" as "fo", "an" as "and", and "giant" as "fiant". Then I recalled that in 1960 there was no computerized typesetting, and no automated spellcheckers. A spelling checker would have fixed "laught", "fo", and "fiant", although it wouldn't have done anything about "to", "sue", and "and".

I imagine the paper was typeset on a Linotype machine, which casts an entire line of type in lead. That would account for the line "seldom abused by its drver," being followed in the article by the corrected line "seldom abused by its driver, and". Errors of that sort used to sneak into newspapers when a Linotype operator generated a corrected line, but neglected to remove the incorrect line it was supposed to replace.   [return to text]

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