When it comes to eye-opening pranks, hacks, and stunts, no one can equal a team of determined engineering students. If you’re looking for inspiration – speaking strictly hypothetically, of course – or want to sit back and marvel at what your fellow engineers can accomplish, here seven of the most widely admired engineering pranks of the last seventy years.
The Great Rose Bowl Hack
At the 1961 Rose Bowl, a group of Caltech students (“The Fiendish Fourteen”) used a combination of social engineering, lock-picking, and good, old-fashioned hacking to subvert an audience-participation spectacle into one of the most famous college pranks in history.
The Washington Huskies cheerleaders had a good idea: distribute thousands of colored signs to spectators in the stands, along with a sheet of instructions. When the cheerleaders signaled a particular pattern number from the instruction sheet, audience members would display one or the other side of their sign, turning the stands into a gigantic, human-powered pixel display.
To a certain breed of engineer, hacking such a display is less of an opportunity than it is a moral imperative.
A young team member, claiming to represent a local high school newspaper, breathlessly interviewed members of the cheerleading squad about the prank, extracting information about the nature of the instruction sheets and where the cheerleaders would be staying. Letting themselves into the cheerleaders’ temporary housing – lock-picking is a perennial favorite hobby of hackers and puzzle fiends – the Fourteen stole the instruction sheets, inserted their own code, and replaced them.
On game day, the cheerleaders and Huskies fans were puzzled to see planned text displays (“Washington Huskies”) print backwards and the Huskies mascot replaced with the Caltech beaver. While a coding error was initially suspected – writing for human hardware is tricky, to say the least – the fourteenth iteration let a national media audience in on the joke: 2,700 human beings spelling out CALTECH in bold, black letters.
Washington beat Minnesota 17 – 7, but we know who the real winners were.
From Russia with Love
Last April, the Green Building at MIT was converted into a giant, playable Tetris game. Colored LEDs and controls were added to each window and synced to input from a podium across the street. When active, any passerby could activate and play a game of Tetris, visible for miles around.
The LEDs and controls remain in the Planetary Sciences building to this day, each with an “opt out” button for folks burning the midnight oil.
The Flying Campus Police Car
The Great Dome of MIT is a juicy target for prankster engineers. In May of 1994, in one of the most popular and iconic campus pranks in the Institute’s history, a campus police car appeared on the roof one morning, complete with flashing lights and a dummy driver.
The car was assembled from Cavalier body panels over a wooden frame and painted to resemble a campus police car. Ever detail-oriented, the prankster’s vehicle was Car # “pi”, its driver thoughtfully supplied with a box of donuts, and a ticket for non-permit parking was placed under the windshield wiper.
“IHTFP” – an unofficial campus motto with various printable and unprintable translations – was the tag on the car’s license plate.
MIT’s physical plant crew, under the gaze of several helicopters and a crowd of students, disassembled and removed the car by ten o’clock that morning. No doubt, they’ve a lot of experience clearing prank installations from the Great Dome; other entries include a fire truck, the Triforce, and a giant Olympic medal.
Why Is It Always Cars?
Engineering students hoisting cars onto rooftops is a proud and noble tradition. Perhaps the first group of pranksters to pull it off were Cambridge University students, who parked an Austin Seven on the roof of the Senate House in 1958.
Unlike the MIT Campus Police Car prank, this crew used the actual vehicle. It took months of calculation, custom-fabricated scaffolding, and a lot of ingenuity, but the car was hoisted and placed in a single night. The spectacle made newspaper headlines across Europe as the pranksters – then anonymous, now in their 70s and enjoying the fruits of prominent engineering careers – watched the fire brigade, the Civil Defense agency, and finally the Office Training Corps attempt to remove the vehicle over the course of weeks. Finally, it was disassembled on the roof and lowered in pieces.
Initially fearing expulsion, the pranksters’ ringleader, Peter Davey, kept their involvement strictly anonymous. Word always gets out, however; Davey soon received a bottle of champagne from, he believes, the Dean of Gonville and Caius college.
Parking cars in whimsical, unlikely places is a particular favorite among the prankster set. In a similar but opposite prank, a similar vehicle was parked on the surface of a nearby river.
Invasion of the Daleks
Luddites and sensationalist journalists love their Terminator references, but the most globally-beloved cyborg genocide-artists have to be the Daleks. When you’ve a world-renowned artificial intelligence lab – CSAIL, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory – and some time to kill, brightening the MIT skyline with a giant Dalek is sometimes your only reasonable option.
Unknown pranksters built a tremendous Dalek shell and transported it, in the dead of night, onto the roof of MIT’s Stata Center. The prank was inspired by the travels of a replica TARDIS, which visited Caltech, MIT, Berkeley, and Stanford, with a stop at Building 7 of MIT in August of last year.
The Beetle on the Golden Gate Bridge
To the north, engineering students at the University of British Columbia have a vibrant pranking tradition, complete with semi-secret societies and an omerta-like code of perpetual silence. One of the most notorious, ingenious pranks in the school’s history is the suspension of a full-sized Volkswagen Beetle from the underside of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in February of 2001. Yet this prank, which sparked unprecedented furor and tail-chasing from a number of government agencies, was a mere commemoration of another UBC pranks, decades earlier, when a similar Beetle was suspended from the Lion’s Gate Bridge in Vancouver.
Despite the best efforts of journalists, the California Highway Patrol and US Coast Guard, the identity of the engineers responsible remains unknown. While no one affiliated with UBC knows anything, of course, various school officials have provided hints and details as to how such a thing might theoretically be carried out.
Just, you know, as an intellectual exercise.
First, skilled civil engineers would have to run a stress analysis on the Golden Gate Bridge, to determine if the Beetle would damage any critical components. Then, its engine, windows, and wheels would be removed to save weight, with the frame and body neatly halved for ease of transport and deployment.
A 27m steel cable would be threaded under the bridge and clipped to a handrail for ease of access, with the cable crew remaining perched under the bridge overnight. On the day of deployment, a flatbed would idle momentarily near the bridge, deploy the reassembled shell – connected to the cable with high-test nylon rope – and let the cable crew perform a controlled release. The flatbed would retrieve the cable crew and disappear, mission accomplished.
The car remained suspended for hours, until the Highway Patrol – lacking an appreciation for marine habitats – “solved” the problem by cutting the car free to drop into the Bay.
It remains there, to this day.
The Droid You’re Looking For
The Goodsell Observatory of Carleton College received an ambitious makeover in 2010, which we include not as much for its notoriety as for involving a gigantic R2-D2, our favorite astromech droid from the Star Wars universe.
The scale of the prankster’s efforts is to be commended. The Observatory is more than a century old and respectably huge, home to a 16.2” Brashear refractor, an 8.25” Alvan Clark refractor, the original timekeeping transit telescope for the American Midwest, and several 8” Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain LX200s. Draping both domes required a lot of cloth, time, and secrecy.
May the Force be with you, anonymous prankster engineers… and may your administrators share your sense of humor.
So, hypothetically speaking, how did you engineer the cable system under the Golden Gate Bridge? Tweet us @EngineerJobs or leave cryptic hints in the comments.