A century ago, one of the world’s first hackers used Morse code insults to disrupt a public demo of Marconi’s wireless telegraph
LATE one June afternoon in 1903 a hush fell across an expectant audience in the Royal Institution’s celebrated lecture theatre in London. Before the crowd, the physicist John Ambrose Fleming was adjusting arcane apparatus as he prepared to demonstrate an emerging technological wonder: a long-range wireless communication system developed by his boss, the Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi. The aim was to showcase publicly for the first time that Morse code messages could be sent wirelessly over long distances. Around 300 miles away, Marconi was preparing to send a signal to London from a clifftop station in Poldhu, Cornwall, UK.
Yet before the demonstration could begin, the apparatus in the lecture theatre began to tap out a message. At first, it spelled out just one word repeated over and over. Then it changed into a facetious poem accusing Marconi of “diddling the public”. Their demonstration had been hacked – and this was more than 100 years before the mischief playing out on the internet today. Who was the Royal Institution hacker? How did the cheeky messages get there? And why?
It had all started in 1887 when Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of the electromagnetic waves predicted by James Clerk Maxwell in 1865. Discharging a capacitor into two separated electrodes, Hertz ionised the air in the gap between them, creating a spark. Miraculously, another spark zipped between two electrodes a few metres away: an electromagnetic wave from the first spark had induced a current between the second electrode pair. It meant long and short bursts of energy – “Hertzian waves” – could be broadcast to represent the dots and dashes of Morse code. Wireless telegraphy was born, and Marconi and his company were at the vanguard. Marconi claimed that his wireless messages could be sent privately over great distances. “I can tune my instruments so that no other instrument that is not similarly tuned can tap my messages,” Marconi boasted to London’s St James Gazette in February 1903.
That things would not go smoothly for Marconi and Fleming at the Royal Institution that day in June was soon apparent. Minutes before Fleming was due to receive Marconi’s Morse messages from Cornwall, the hush was broken by a rhythmic ticking noise sputtering from the theatre’s brass projection lantern, used to display the lecturer’s slides. To the untrained ear, it sounded like a projector on the blink. But Arthur Blok, Fleming’s assistant, quickly recognised the tippity-tap of a human hand keying a message in Morse. Someone, Blok reasoned, was beaming powerful wireless pulses into the theatre and they were strong enough to interfere with the projector’s electric arc discharge lamp.
Mentally decoding the missive, Blok realised it was spelling one facetious word, over and over: “Rats”. A glance at the output of the nearby Morse printer confirmed this. The incoming Morse then got more personal, mocking Marconi: “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily,” it trilled. Further rude epithets – apposite lines from Shakespeare – followed.
The stream of invective ceased moments before Marconi’s signals from Poldhu arrived. The demo continued, but the damage was done: if somebody could intrude on the wireless frequency in such a way, it was clearly nowhere near as secure as Marconi claimed. And it was likely that they could eavesdrop on supposedly private messages too.
Marconi would have been peeved, to say the least, but he did not respond directly to the insults in public. He had no truck with sceptics and naysayers: “I will not demonstrate to any man who throws doubt upon the system,” he said at the time. Fleming, however, fired off a fuming letter to The Times of London. He dubbed the hack “scientific hooliganism”, and “an outrage against the traditions of the Royal Institution”. He asked the newspaper’s readers to help him find the culprit.
He didn’t have to wait long. Four days later a gleeful letter confessing to the hack was printed by The Times. The writer justified his actions on the grounds of the security holes it revealed for the public good. Its author was Nevil Maskelyne, a mustachioed 39-year-old British music hall magician. Maskelyne came from an inventive family – his father came up with the coin-activated “spend-a-penny” locks in pay toilets. Maskelyne, however, was more interested in wireless technology, so taught himself the principles. He would use Morse code in “mind-reading” magic tricks to secretly communicate with a stooge. He worked out how to use a spark-gap transmitter to remotely ignite gunpowder. And in 1900, Maskelyne sent wireless messages between a ground station and a balloon 10 miles away. But, as author Sungook Hong relates in the book Wireless, his ambitions were frustrated by Marconi’s broad patents, leaving him embittered towards the Italian. Maskelyne would soon find a way to vent his spleen.
One of the big losers from Marconi’s technology looked likely to be the wired telegraphy industry. Telegraphy companies owned expensive land and sea cable networks, and operated flotillas of ships with expert crews to lay and service their submarine cables. Marconi presented a wireless threat to their wired hegemony, and they were in no mood to roll over.
The Eastern Telegraph Company ran the communications hub of the British Empire from the seaside hamlet of Porthcurno, west Cornwall, where its submarine cables led to Indonesia, India, Africa, South America and Australia. Following Marconi’s feat of transatlantic wireless messaging on 12 December 1901, ETC hired Maskelyne to undertake extended spying operations.
Maskelyne built a 50-metre radio mast (the remnants of which still exist) on the cliffs west of Porthcurno to see if he could eavesdrop on messages the Marconi Company was beaming to vessels as part of its highly successful ship-to-shore messaging business. Writing in the journal The Electrician on 7 November 1902, Maskelyne gleefully revealed the lack of security. “I received Marconi messages with a 25-foot collecting circuit [aerial] raised on a scaffold pole. When eventually the mast was erected the problem was not interception but how to deal with the enormous excess of energy.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. Marconi had patented a technology for tuning a wireless transmitter to broadcast on a precise wavelength. This tuning, Marconi claimed, meant confidential channels could be set up. Anyone who tunes in to a radio station will know that’s not true, but it wasn’t nearly so obvious back then. Maskelyne showed that by using an untuned broadband receiver he could listen in.
Having established interception was possible, Maskelyne wanted to draw more attention to the technology’s flaws, as well as showing interference could happen. So he staged his Royal Institution hack by setting up a simple transmitter and Morse key at his father’s nearby West End music hall.
The facetious messages he sent could easily have been jumbled with those Marconi himself sent from Cornwall, ruining both had they arrived simultaneously. Instead, they drew attention to a legitimate flaw in the technology – and the only damage done was to the egos of Marconi and Fleming.
Fleming continued to bluster for weeks in the newspapers about Maskelyne’s assault being an insult to science. Maskelyne countered that Fleming should focus on the facts. “I would remind Professor Fleming that abuse is no argument,” he replied.
In the present day, many hackers end up highlighting flawed technologies and security lapses just like Maskelyne. A little mischief has always had its virtues.
Paul Marks is senior technology correspondent for New Scientist
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