The curious story of the wireless hacker

Popular perception treats the hacker as a villain, often wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, typing on computers without mice while staring at screens 20 cm away passing Matrix code in green characters. Not quite.

Bad hackers are bad1 (Credit: Max Bender via Unsplash)

In reality, the hacker spirit does not depend on computers, the hacker is the rooting, the guy who wants to take the toy apart to see how it works, the guy who will later reassemble the toy in a different way, just to see if he can.

Many of humanity’s greatest geniuses were hackers, one of the most famous, Galileo Galilei.

Everyone celebrates Galileo for defending the heliocentric hypothesis and being persecuted by the Catholic Church, or the invention of the refracting telescope. In fact he learned of the invention of the telescope by a Dutchman named Hans Lippershey, thought he could do better, and did.

Galileo Presents His Telescope to the Senate of Venice (Credit: it’s a me, Luigi Sabatelli, circa 1841)

What is not so well known is that the astronomical purpose of the telescope was secondary. Galileo realized that he could make good money selling telescopes to merchants in Venice. They could see the ships arriving as much as two hours in advance, and knowing their itineraries and cargo, there was time to run to the Market and do a lot of lucrative deals, speculating on prices.

I said that the Hacker is above all a curious one, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have evil intentions, as demonstrated in a case that could be a good episode of Mr. robothad it not happened in 1903.

The Telegraph was already established as a means of communication, and even between North America and Europe, there were already submarine cables allowing the exchange of (expensive) messages across the Atlantic. By the end of the 19th century the technology was advanced enough that a cable installed in 1886 would have worked until 1965.

Marconi and his strange gadget, the Radio (Credit: Public Domain)

Here comes a novelty, a radio, promising wireless communications over incredible distances. Its biggest proponent was Guglielmo Marconi, who demonstrated his technology, combining radio and Morse code.

In June 1903 Marconi was in Cornwall with his transmitter. 300 km away, in London, Sir John Ambrose Fleming, the inventor of the radio valve, operated a receiver in the theater of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, “an organization dedicated to scientific education and research”. The objective was to capture Marconi’s broadcast in front of an audience of scientists, businessmen and journalists.

Beep beep beep beep, the signals begin to arrive. Sir Fleming’s assistant makes a strange face. Fleming looks at the Morse printer attached to the receiver, and confirms: Repeatedly, the word “Rats…”.

An old Morse printer. Make no mistake, at that time she already held paper, locked and printed the message “.–. -.-. / .- .. — .–.. / .- …–. . -.” (credit: Internet Reproduction)

Then the mysterious invader began broadcasting a poem mocking Marconi and his wireless telegraph, with a lot of profanity and lowliness. Sir Fleming was pissed off, even more so when the case ended up in the papers. He wrote furious letters demanding action, calling it “scientific hooliganism”.

A few days later, a letter in the The Times of London clarified the mystery. The hacker was one of Marconi’s biggest enemies, Nevil Maskelyne (1863–1924).

Maskelyne, then 39, was an inventor, salon magician and amateur scientist, especially interested in radio communication. He learned everything he could on his own, including Morse code, which he used to secretly communicate with assistants during his shows.

He built transmitters and in 1900 was able to send a radio signal 10 miles away, but when he tried to commercialize his inventions, he found that Marconi had patented everything beforehand.

Maskelyne trained as a watchmaker, and built robots for some of his tricks (Credit: Public Domain)

To make matters worse, Marconi boasted that his radio system was extremely secure, that only his perfectly tuned receivers could receive messages. Maskelyne knew this to be a lie, and in 1902 she built a 50-meter high tower, with which she captured Marconi’s “confidential” messages. He published his results the same year in the journal The Electricianbut nobody gave a damn.

His big luck came in 1903, when he was contacted by the Eastern Telegraph Company, the mega-company that controlled telegraph traffic between the UK and its interests in Indonesia, India, Africa, South America and Australia. Its undersea cables were very expensive but still profitable. Radio could affect that.

The solution? Paying a Marconi disaffected person to demonstrate that the radio was unsafe and could suffer deliberate interference.

Although he was hired to crash Marconi’s party, Maskelyne acted like a true White Hat hacker hired to investigate and test the security of a system or an organization, and his demonstration exposed real limitations of radio that still exist today. In any free market of life you buy an SDR (software defined radio) and capture open transmissions from police, firefighters, airports…

You can even play online. This site here is the frontend of an SDR that receives signals from an antenna in the Netherlands. Entering the frequency of 8131.5833 or 4372 KHz you can hear Russian Strategic Bomber Force communications, transmitting unencrypted. Serious. Putin learned nothing from Maskelyne.

Your son has already learned. Jasper Maskelyne (1902-1973) followed his father’s career as a magician and inventor. During World War II he commanded an Army unit specializing in camouflage and concealment. He used his knowledge of magic to create feats such as building a replica of the city of Alexandria in the middle of the desert so the Germans would bomb the wrong place. I tell his story, in my book Panties in Space.

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