scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Take a look back at some of the best-known MIT ‘hacks’

Hackers turned the Great Dome into R2-D2 in 1999 to celebrate the release of “Star Wars: Episode I.”Frank O’Brien/Globe Staff/File

Amid the record-breaking opening weekend of “Avengers: Endgame,” some pranksters transformed Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Great Dome into Captain America’s red, white, and blue shield.

The history of pranks — or “hacks” — at MIT is extensive, with homages to pop culture, nods to charity, and lots of digs at Harvard. The identities of hackers are often kept secret but, as in the case of the Captain America shield, they’re known for carefully planning their misdeeds months in advance.

“The priority is safety for people, and safety for MIT structures,” one told the Globe on Sunday.

MIT’s Great Dome was transformed into Captain America’s shield Saturday night.PHOTO COURTESY OF RAYMOND HUFFMAN

Although few hacks are officially condoned by the university, they’ve become part of the school’s mythology and hacking is widely discussed on the MIT admissions website.


They’re even categorized by year, location, and topic on this MIT-hosted page.

The Globe has been on hand to document plenty of hacks. Here’s a look back at several.


The infamous 1982 Harvard-Yale balloon.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/File 1982

The 1982 Harvard-Yale balloon prank, pulled off by a group of fraternity brothers, was featured on the front page of the Boston Sunday Globe, and remains one of MIT’s best-known hijinks.

Members of MIT’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity planted an MIT-themed balloon under the grass midfield at Harvard Stadium and launched it during the Harvard-Yale football game.

The nozzle for the pump popped above the Harvard Stadium grass once the balloon deflated. The hackers included instructions for putting it back below ground.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/File

The balloon apparently didn’t intimidate Harvard, who ran up its highest score ever against Yale, scoring 45 points. (Harvard has only matched that point total twice: in 2011, when the Crimson won 45-7, and in last year’s game at Fenway Park, when they prevailed 45-27.)


A fake MIT police car was placed atop the dome in 1994.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 1994/Globe Staff

The Great Dome of MIT’s Building 10 has been the site of many a prank, including most notably, the stationing of a fake MIT police car atop it in 1994. Its visible location along the Charles River and its size and scale make it an intriguing pedestal, and its status as a campus symbol make it a landmark for ambitious hackers.


The dome’s height and size has presented a problem for hackers, though, and at least one person has died while climbing it. Nicholas W. Paggi, a 2015 MIT graduate, died after he slipped and fell from the dome in 2017, due to what the MIT campus newspaper called “a hacking accident.”

Over the last several decades, the dome has featured hacks from a fake MBTA car to the details of the head of R2-D2 from “Star Wars.”

A fake MIT fire truck was placed atop the dome in 2006, similar in style to the 1994 police car hack.Michele McDonald/Globe Staff/File
A snowman stood above the campus on the Great Dome following a March 2001 snowstorm.The Boston Globe
Hackers strapped a pretend Red Line car up to the side of the Great Dome in 2009.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File/Globe staff
Pac-man and Blinky the ghost appeared atop the Great Dome in January 2013.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff
A 48-unit weight “cracked” the Great Dome during this 2001 finals week hack.Globe file photo/2001
Hackers installed the first seven notes of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" on temporary scaffolding on the Great Dome in 2009.Greg Steinbrecheer

The Great Dome is also often used by hackers to commemorate special events or anniversaries. Besides the 2003 installation of a Wright Flyer replica, hackers have honored the lunar landing, as well as the opening of movies.

A full-size replica of the Wright Flyer sat above the campus on Dec. 17, 2003, to mark the centennial of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.Stanley Hu/Associated Press/File/Associated Press
Hackers turned the Great Dome into R2-D2 in 1999 to celebrate the release of “Star Wars: Episode I.”Frank O’Brien/Globe Staff
On Halloween 1994, hackers turned the Great Dome into a pumpkin.Vinh-Thang Vo-Ta/Globe Staff/Vinh-Thang Vo-Ta for the Boston Globe
Hackers “borrowed” a fiberglass steer from the now-defunct Hilltop Steak House and placed it on the Great Dome in 1979.UPI/Globe file photo/Globe File
The steer is now featured in the Hall of Hacks exhibit at the MIT museum (it is joined there by the fake police car and other favorite hacked objects).Jared Leeds/Associated Press/Associated Press


In 2010, hackers created an upside-down room on an archway on Ames Street in Cambridge.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File
The upside-down room included a fake cat.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

Many MIT hacks have involved digs at Harvard, CalTech, and other MIT rivals. Besides the 1982 balloon prank (inspired by a similar explosives-based prank from the 1940s), there have been other hacks designed to humiliate or intimidate MIT’s perceived opponents.

Students and passersby examined a Civil War cannon on MIT’s campus that was “liberated” from MIT rival CalTech in 2006.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File
In 2007, MIT hackers transformed the John Harvard statue at their rival school into Master Chief, a character from the “Halo” video game series. TungShen Chew
Inside the Hall of Hacks exhibit is a display honoring one of MIT’s favorite expressions. Above is a photo of an old banner hack, while below it is the water fountain fire hydrant hack.Jared Leeds/Associated Press/File/via AP

Former MIT president Jerome Wiesner once said in a speech to students that “getting an education from MIT is like taking a drink from a fire hose.” The expression has been used in hacks, on t-shirts, banners, and all many of MIT paraphrenalia since then.

According to “Nightwork,” a book detailing the histories of the MIT hacks, one such hack involved an actual functional fire hydrant water fountain rigged up by hackers in 1991. It was placed outside the largest lecture hall on MIT’s campus so students passing by during finals week could take a drink.


Some hacks bemoan the school’s culture while others celebrate it. This “Nerd Xing” sign, now on display in the Hall of Hacks, was put up on MIT’s campus in 1987.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File 2008/Globe Staff

Previous Globe reporting was used in this story. Peter Bailey-Wells can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @pbaileywells.