A Brief History of Hacking Part 1: 1900-1990

A Brief History of Hacking Part 1: 1900-1990

Today’s blog takes a look at the fascinating and often ingenious history of computer hacking. From the cryptologists of World War II to the politically motivated computer worms of the late 80s, the hacker movement has featured some of the brightest minds of the past century. Read on for a quick briefing on the key moments in computer hacking history.




  • Nevil Maskelyne, a British magician and inventor, hacks Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless technology during a public demonstration given by John Ambrose Fleming. The demonstration was intended to showcase the security offered by Marconi’s wireless technology; Maskelyne hacked the device and sent insulting Morse code messages, highlighting the relative ease it took to compromise such technology.   


  • Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman and Harold Keen develop the Bombe, an electromechanical device used by British cryptologists during the Second World War to decipher German Enigma-machine encrypted messages.


  • René Carmille, a French computer expert, hacks the punch card machines used by the Nazis to locate Jews in France. Carmille and a group of like-minded hackers purposely sabotaged the German census of France over the course of two years by hacking and reprogramming punch card machines. The hack left the devices unable to punch information from Column 11 of the census, which indicated religion, onto any card. Their efforts saved many people from the Nazi death camps.




  • Joe Engressia, a blind seven-year-old boy, inadvertently discovers he can activate phone switches by whistling specific frequencies into a phone receiver. Born with absolute pitch, Engressia found that whistling 2600 hertz into a receiver could trick AT&T’s fully automatic telephone switches into thinking a call had ended, leaving the carrier line open and susceptible to exploitative acts, such as free long-distance and international calls. Engressia’s actions inspired a sub-culture movement focused on the manipulation of telephone call routing. Known as phone phreaking, it was the direct precursor to modern-day hacker culture.


  • John T. Draper, also known as Captain Crunch, invents the ‘Blue Box’, a multifrequency tone generator capable of the 2600 hertz exploit. Draper’s blue box consisted of audio oscillators, a keypad, an audio amplifier and a speaker. Draper’s adopted moniker is a reference to the Cap’n Crunch breakfast cereal, which gave away toy whistles capable of emitting a 2600 hertz tone during the 60s.
  • Computer hacking begins, mostly conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Early hacks at MIT focused on discovering processing shortcuts for the purpose of bypassing or improving system operations.  


  • Secrets of the Little Blue Box is published in Esquire Magazine. The article brought the phone phreaking sub-culture to the attention of the general public.




  • The FBI investigates a security breach at National CSS, Inc., a time-sharing firm, following the compromising of the NCSS master password list. When a NCSS employee revealed he was behind the password cracker, the company chose not to punish him but instead encouraged other employees to identify any other security weaknesses. This practice is now known as white hat hacking. Much like how the Esquire Magazine article shone a light on phone phreaking, the National CSS breach raised awareness about computer security issues.


  • The Chaos Computer Club (CCC) forms in Germany. The CCC is Europe’s largest hacker association.
  • The Warelords forms in the United States, comprised of mainly black hat hackers. Black hat hackers use their skills for personal, malicious or illegal purposes.
  • Ian Murphy, also known as Captain Zap, becomes the first black hat hacker to be tried and convicted as a felon. Murphy hacked AT&T’s computers to change its internal clocks, reversing the metered billing rates. This resulted in late-night discount rates for people who made phone calls at midday, and high prices for those who made calls at midnight.


  • The 414s, a group of young computer hackers, break into 60 computer systems at a range of institutions including the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre. The incident resulted in heavy media coverage in the U.S., and the passing of several laws targeting hackers.
  • The film WarGames brings hacker culture to the world at large.


  • The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 is signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, providing the Secret Service with jurisdiction over computer fraud.
  • The first edition of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly is published, its title a reference to the 2600 hertz exploit.
  • The first Chaos Communication Congress, an annual European hacker conference organized by the CCC, is held in Hamburg, Germany.


  • The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is passed by the United States Congress, making it a crime to break into computer systems. Notably, the law does not cover the actions of juveniles.
  • The Conscience of a Hacker, also known as The Hacker Manifesto, is published by underground hacker ezine Phrack. The essay is considered to be a cornerstone of hacker culture.
  • The first conviction for illegally accessing a computer system occurs when Robert Schifreen and Stephen Gold are convicted of hacking British Telecom’s Prestel email system under the United Kingdom’s Forgery and Counterfeiting Act of 1981. Both men were later acquitted when it was determined that hacking is not within the legal definition of forgery.


  • Cornell University graduate student Robert T. Morris launches the Morris Worm., one of the world’s first computer worms. The worm infects 6,000 networked computers, slowing the machines down to the point of unusability. Morris claimed that the worm was not created with malicious intentions; he simply wanted to gauge the size of the Internet.
  • USD 70 million is stolen from the First National Bank of Chicago via computer theft.
  • The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) creates the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) to combat issues with network security.


  • Robert T. Morris becomes the first person to be indicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and is sentenced to three years of probation and 400 hours of community service, plus a fine of USD 10,050.
  • The WANK computer worm spreads over the DECnet. The worm is notable as it was the first major worm to contain a political message.



The history of computer hacking is filled with people who thought outside the box to manipulate what is in it. These radical individuals and groups are responsible in part for the advancement of computer technology and the development of the Internet, in addition to the response of various governments towards computer crime. Be sure to check back on Thursday for the second part of this blog, which takes a look at the biggest hacking incidents of the past 25 years.

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