The first white-hat hacker?

120 years ago, a stage illusionist decided to take a famous scientist down a peg or two, and in the process became arguably the first white-hat hacker. This story is taken from my books How to Teach Computer Science (for computing teachers) and How to Learn Computer Science (for computing students) available here.

Royal Institution Lecture Theatre, London, June 1903

An expectant audience watches the physicist John Ambrose Fleming tinkering with arcane apparatus. They are waiting for a demonstration of long-range wireless messaging developed by Fleming’s employer, Guglielmo Marconi (now recognised as the inventor of radio). Marconi is 300 miles away, preparing to send a signal to London from a clifftop station in Poldhu, Cornwall. Yet, a few minutes before the official demonstration begins, the apparatus starts tapping out a message. And it’s
clearly not from Marconi.


…types the Morse code printer, set up to decode the messages arriving from Cornwall. And then, even worse, the printer begins to tap out a rude rhyme about Marconi:


The magician Nevil Maskelyne has hacked the demonstration; he has been
hired as a spy by the Eastern Telegraph Company, a wired telegraph provider that fears the Marconi Company will push it out of business. “I can tune my instruments so that no other instrument that is not similarly tuned can tap my messages”, Marconi had boasted just a few months earlier, and Maskelyne’s job today is to disprove that claim.

Neville Maskelyne sits in a chair in this black and white image from the 1900s. He's about 50 with receding hair and a moustache, sitting in a chair with some technical equipment nearby.

Eastern had no trouble recruiting Maskelyne for the hack. The magician had previously used Morse code in “mind-reading” magic tricks to communicate with a stooge. After experimenting with wireless technology, Maskelyne had hoped to make further use of it, but he was frustrated by Marconi’s broad patents.


Marconi doesn’t respond to the hack, but a furious Fleming writes a letter to The Times, asking for assistance in finding the culprit. Maskelyne happily identifies himself, saying his prank was for the good of the public, since it revealed holes in the “secure” transmission. Maskelyne has arguably become the first “white hat” hacker in history.


My two books are available from the publisher John Catt Ed and from Amazon, see here for the links. Each chapter covers a typical GCSE Computer Science topic with stories (like the above), pedagogy, research and teaching and learning ideas. I am humbled to have worked on the LEARN book with Craig’n’Dave who wrote this lovely tribute in the foreword:

We are delighted to have helped with this fascinating book because Alan shares our passion for computer science and striving for the very best from our students. This shines brightly through an easily digestible exploration of the history of the subject and some of its trailblazers. Each chapter concisely describing the background to a topic you will be studying and how things came to be. In addition, the book provides thought provoking questions for you to consider, or even to challenge your teacher! It signposts excellent resources and the very best advice to help you achieve highly in the subject.

From the Foreword to htLEARNcs, written by Craig Sargent and Dave Hillyard, aka Craig’n’Dave.

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By mraharrisoncs

Freelance consultant, teacher and author, professional development lead for the NCCE, CAS Master Teacher, Computer Science lecturer.

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