Oh Rats! The First Hacker Intercepts Wireless in 1903

by JoHarrington

If you thought hacking was a new phenomenon, then you haven't met Nevil Maskelyne! LulzSec's great-grandfather exposed Marconi.

Think of Edwardian wireless and our minds instantly flip to Titanic. There would have been no survivors at all, if John Philips and Harold Bride hadn't tapped Morse Code into the ether, until their operations room was flooded.

In many ways, it saved the reputation of Marconi's wireless, which was new technology and treated with great suspicion even as late as 1912.

For the reasons why, we need to look in part towards a highly publicized hack, which took place nine years before. The radio waves were nowhere near as secure as Marconi made out.

Marconi and His Wireless Equipment

The Hubris of Marconi in 1903

Wireless was at the cutting edge of Edwardian technology and it would undoubtedly save many lives. But Marconi was stifling competition before it could even begin.

Guglielmo Marconi didn't invent the Morse Code, but he made it famous. It was his technology which allowed the language of dots and dashes to be transmitted over great distances.

On June 3rd 1909, its use saved the lives of every passenger and crew member of the Cunard ocean liner SS Slavonia, when it floundered in the Azores.

More famously, the Marconi wireless system was used to bring Carpathia to rescue Titanic's survivors.

These celebrated cases mean that we all know at least one phrase in Morse Code. I defy anyone not to know what it means to hear dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot. Or, in letters, S.O.S.

In anticipation of this reason, Marconi was understandably proud of his wireless system. But it wasn't all altruism and saving the world. He could also see the dollar signs stacking up in what would make up the bulk of the messages.

First class passengers on steam ships, or land to land based corporate moguls, would pay large sums to get their private missives across the ocean. This is where Marconi wanted to ensure that they would be paying him.

His patents were broad enough to demand a monopoly of the radio waves; and his claims were as arrogant as they were false.

"I can tune my instruments so that no other instrument that is not similarly tuned can tap my messages," Marconi told the press in 1903, ahead of a demonstration to prove it. Unfortunately for him, his boasting was like a red rag to a bull for one young man. A true demonstration it would be.

Books about Marconi - Inventor of Wireless Radio

Buy these books to learn more about Guglielmo Marconi, the man who brought us wireless communication.

The Thwarted Dreams of Nevil Maskelyne

The Maskelynes were an illustrious family in terms of scientific academia. But the latest generation were being patented out of making their mark.

The Maskelyne family were very well known in the Age of Reason. They had been for generations.

In 1765, Reverend Doctor Nevil Maskelyne  (pictured left) had been appointed as the Royal Astronomer. He wrote several books and treatises, which would now be recognized as Physics and Chemistry.

He was the grandfather of Mervyn Herbert Nevil Story Maskelyne, a Professor of Mineralogy and Chemistry at Oxford University.

He was also Keeper of Minerals at the British Museum until 1911. It was in his laboratory there that Prof Story-Maskelyne identified a naturally occurring glass in meteorites. It subsequently bore the name Maskelynite after him.

Meanwhile, his distant cousin John Nevil Maskelyne was making his fortune as the inventor of the coin operated box, which opened public toilet doors. Spend a penny entered the English slang lexicon.

When he wasn't helping to monetize restrooms, John was a notable stage magician and escapologist. On the side, he worked tirelessly to debunk spiritualism and any claim of paranormal reality.  These tricks and training were his greatest legacy to his sons, both of whom would go on to be famous stage magicians.

But the eldest didn't want that.  Today we would call Nevil Maskelyne a geek. His passions lay in technology, radio waves, electricity and long-distance communication. Building his own equipment and experimenting, he had managed to transmit his own wireless messages from a hot air balloon to a land base ten miles away.

Ever the showman, he had also ignited gunpowder by using wireless technology, in front of a thrilled and fascinated theater audience.

This was going to be his life. No rabbits out of hats for the amusement of musical hall audiences for him. Nevil Maskelyne was going to rule the radio waves!

There was one problem. Wherever he turned, he met yet another Marconi patent. They were so wide-reaching that they took the very concept of the field and made it belong to the Italian.

Disappointment led to anger. Then, as Maskelyne heard Marconi's claims to security and safety, anger turned to disdain. A whole new genre of action was born. Nevil Maskelyne was about to become the world's first hacker.

Nevil Maskelyne in Context

These books were all written by members of the Maskelyne family. They worked towards the advancement of science and the debunking of frauds.

A Very Edwardian AntiSec Hack

The scene at the Royal Institution did not go quite according to Marconi's plan.

It would have been like the release of a new Apple product, or a talk on the future of Facebook now. An auditorium full of the great and the good, the press and other interested parties, all clamoring to see unveiled the latest in technology.

This was the scene on the afternoon of June 4th 1903, at the Royal Institution lecture. In front of a packed hall, Marconi had set up his equipment.

Wireless technology was so new that many were incredulous at the fact it could exist at all. Marconi had only made it work across the Atlantic a year previously! To bolster his case, he had a star witness, the respected Physicist John Ambrose Fleming standing alongside him.

The brass gleamed. The woodwork shone. The people watched and waited, while Marconi spoke from the lectern. He brought on Fleming, whose distinguished reputation added credibility to his claims. And then the apparatus sprang into life.

"Rats! Rats! Rats!" It spelled out in Morse Code to the shock of Marconi and Fleming, and the interest of the audience. Many of those understood the code very well. It wasn't the language that was being introduced here, but the method by which it was relayed.

For even those slow on the uptake, the expression of Marconi on the stage must have told the rest of the story. It was the equivalent of a mobile 'phone ringing at the wrong moment, then being answered on loudspeaker.

Fleming didn't react. He was deaf and therefore had no idea that anything untoward was happening. He continued to speak in support of Marconi and the system.

"There was a young fellow of Italy," tapped out Marconi's machine for all who would listen, "who diddled the public quite prettily."  The limerick was completed in sentiments, which the only Edwardian witness to chronicle it described as en suite. That's toilet humor to me and you.

The transmissions slid off into quoting scathing tracts from Shakespeare, before ending in personal insults. This was all printed off on the recorder beside them.

For a man who'd claimed that his wireless technology was utterly secure for private messages, this was highly humiliating. Marconi had already been speaking for three quarters of an hour, and his focus had been on the security of his system and the privacy of messages transmitted upon it.

Wireless Technology

To demonstrate how it sounded is the most famous message of all.

Print of Marconi in 1903

How to Hack a System Like Maskelyne

All it takes is a bit of fine-tuning to gain control of wireless technology.

How did Maskelyne hack the Marconi system so completely and so publicly?  It was easy. You could have done it.

Take any radio and turn the dial until you find a radio station. Listen to it for a second, then re-tune it so that you can hear a different show. All good?  You just imitated the Maskelyne hack from 1903. Well done!

Back in Edwardian times, radio transmitters were in their infancy. It was believed that all channels were secure, because no-one would know which one would be used. A little like how we believe P.I.N. numbers could never be guessed now.

What Maskelyne did was determine the channel. Then he tuned his own transmitter to it and started tapping away.

He was sitting in his father's music hall basement, just around the corner from the Royal Institution. Marconi's own demonstration signal was coming from his station miles away in Cornwall. But none of this really mattered.

Distance could make a difference, for example when the Californian's signal interrupted Titanic's messages from Cape Race. That had led to an angry exchange, resulting in Evans switching off his transmitter for the night. Hence it tragically wasn't on to receive the distress message ten minutes later.

But for Maskelyne and Marconi in 1903, the distance was short enough to make no odds. If both signals had transmitted simultaneously, it would have clashed in an unintelligible jumble.

The smoothness with which Maskelyne had pulled it off would have been a bolt from the blue for Marconi, but the hacker had been preparing for this for a while.

Maskelyne wasn't the only party threatened by wireless technology. The Eastern Telegraph Company had gone to great expense to lay submarine cables to strategic points around the British Empire. They were set to lose a lot of customers, if Marconi's system worked as well as he said it did. Hence the company had no qualms about funding Maskelyne as he sought out flaws.

He found one almighty flaw in the huge antenna mast outside Marconi's Porthcurno wireless station.

Sources for Marconi

The top one tells the full story of Maskelyne's hack.
Wireless: From Marconi's Black-Box to the Audion (Transformations: Studies in the History of Scie...

By 1897 Guglielmo Marconi had transformed James Clerk Maxwell's theory of electromagnetic waves into a workable wireless telegraphy system, and by 1907 Lee de Forest had invente...

View on Amazon

Guglielmo Marconi and Radio Waves (Uncharted, Unexplored, and Unexplained)

Guglielmo Marconi was a young man fascinated with the recently discovered phenomenon of electricity. Telegraph wires were already being used to send messages with electricity—th...

View on Amazon

Masters of Space - Morse, Thompson, Bell, Marconi, Carty

Masters of Space - Morse, Thompson, Bell, Marconi, Carty is presented here in a high quality paperback edition. This popular classic work by Walter Kellogg Towers is in the Engl...

View on Amazon

Tune-Jamming an Antenna's Frequency

Nevil Maskelyne had been a ghost in the wires for months, before publicly demonstrating his hack.

In theory, Marconi's channels could have been reasonably secure. At least until the hackers developed something with which to scan the frequencies.

In practice, all messages came via a huge antenna mast stationed in Porthcurno, in Cornwall, and that was cumbersome to re-tune. Hence the technicians tended to leave it alone. Efficiency and strength of signal were key, not security.

Backed by money from the Eastern Telegraphy Company, Maskelyne sat on a nearby hillside armed with his own mast. Intersecting the transmissions in real time was as easy as switching on a radio. As soon as he'd found the frequency for the main antenna, he simply just had to note where all of the rest were coming from.

He had also realized how ridiculously easy it would have been for him to transmit his own messages onto that frequency. It was probably a quiet tip-off from the hacker, which had the Anglo American Telegraph Company asking Marconi publicly about secrecy.

That group had recently been involved in sending a message from King Edward VII to President Theodore Roosevelt. It was in reply to a wireless transmission in the other direction via Marconi's system.

Maskelyne was focusing on syntony (the craft of tuning) for another reason. This was where Marconi's all encompassing patents were at their weakest. Ferdinand Braun had filed a claim in 1899, which might be judged to cover similar ground in a court of law, while Oliver Lodge pre-dated them both. He had developed the Syntonic Principle in 1898.

There was leverage here and Maskelyne thought that he might use it to crack wide open Marconi's whole monopoly.

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What Happened Next to Maskelyne and Marconi?

It was actually Fleming who suffered more than either of them from the incident.

The reaction from Fleming (pictured left) and Marconi was an early echo of the same accusations heard today by those targeted by movements like Anonymous.

Maskelyne hadn't played within 'the rules of the game', according to Fleming, who also denigrated him as a 'ruffian'. Furious with the hacker's behavior, Fleming wrote to The Times calling the whole episode 'scientific hooliganism'. 

The Daily Telegraph was next with him informing them that the general public would never stand for Maskelyne's actions.

If the press coverage sounded like Fox News-esque scaremongering, then Maskelyne's response was pure Topiary.  He blithely informed journalists that he had not wrecked the show. He had merely demonstrated the system's security flaws.

He also outlined precisely what he could have done, had he been malicious enough to do so. Any Marconi message could have been scrambled with tune-jamming methods. Any Marconi message could have been intercepted. That neither had occurred during the previous few months was down to Maskelyne's honorable nature alone.

Marconi and Fleming both responded with personal insults shot via the press. Fleming added that Maskelyne couldn't possibly have interfered with the technology in the way stated. Fleming publicly and loudly accused him of much worse - using a strong earth current to destroy the main antenna.

Such assertions, upon being proved incorrect, did a lot to damage Fleming's credibility. It was his career rather than Marconi's, which suffered most from the incident.

Marconi went on to concentrate much more on the security of his system. Suspicion lingered though and it wasn't until the publicity surrounding Titanic, that he was able to fully shrug that reputation away. After 1912, he was a hero and no-one cared about earlier embarrassments.

As for Maskelyne, he never did get to be the professional geek that he'd always wanted to be. Marconi's patents continued to keep him at arm's length.  He followed his father into stage magician shows and became famous there instead.

Image: Nevil Maskelyne in later life
Image: Nevil Maskelyne in later life

Was Maskelyne justified in his hack?

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Buy Stage Magic Books by Nevil Maskelyne

Stage illusions and showmanship was the day job for this Edwardian hacker. He used scientific principles and technology to put on a good show.
Updated: 03/16/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 05/09/2012

Thank you very much, Shaz! My friend and I were musing last night and we feel sure that somehow has to have hacked telegraphy in the 50-odd years before. We just don't know about it yet. It's my mission now to go and check. If we're right with our instinct, then Maskelyne will lose his crown as the first hacker.

Thanks for the thumbs up and plus one. :D

Shaz on 05/08/2012

Such an interesting read. Very enlightening and surprising that hacking has been around for so long. Nice Wizz! Thumbs up and g+1 :)

JoHarrington on 05/08/2012

Samsara - Indeed it is! Though I'm now sitting here with a mental challenge. I'm wondering if I could find an even earlier hacker. After all, we have all of those years of telegraphy to explore. Surely someone hacked that.

Spirit of RS - Maskelyne does seem very ahead of his time. That's why I couldn't resist all of the Lulzsec mentions, because this is precisely their modus operandi. It's certainly AntiSec, so I could have crow-barred Anonymous into there too.

Maskelyne was furious with Marconi, so to my mind there was a strong element of vengeance here. But Marconi was standing in the way of anyone developing anything similar, when he was himself standing on the shoulders of the same giants as everyone else. It was merely a case of who could get to the patent office fastest.

Marconi did go so much further though. He could see where this was all leading, so patented against everything he could see being a future invention/development.

I'm glad that you enjoyed reading it.

Thanks both for your comments.

Spirit_0f_RS on 05/08/2012

This was a very good read, and I found it enlightening. Though Maskelyne's actions could be debated in both directions, ranging from revenge to justifiable conduct, one thing does seem to be clear to me. His actions, henceforth, has become one of the most modern ways that people rebel against the digital age, and those who seemingly have control of it.

Hacking, is sometimes done for 'righteous' reasons, and sometimes to simply watch someones work burn to the ground. I think Maskelyne may have had a little bit of both in mind when he did it.

I really enjoyed reading this and learning something new.

samsara on 05/08/2012

Talk about public humiliation, well deserved for such arrogance haha. I didn't realize hacking is that old.

JoHarrington on 05/07/2012

I'm so glad that you got the joke! When I was looking to illustrate that part, I was covered in Edwardian images. I sorted through thinking, 'I need one that just says 'Like a Sir' and 'hacker' to illustrate both the action and the Edwardian etiquette...' Then I stopped and just burst out laughing.

I couldn't not use it then!

Kari on 05/07/2012

Very interesting. I think he was rather justified since calling Macaroni on his stuff proved that Macaroni was wrong.

I love the added irony in the use of the Lulzsec image that the image itself is sometimes referred to as the "Like a sir." image. XD

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