by Andrew Boyd
Today, engineering, football, and a good prank. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
I've witnessed a lot of college pranks over the years. Engineering schools seem to breed them. And it's really no surprise. A good prank is a work of engineering. It's clever. We shouldn't just smile at the outcome. We should marvel at the resourcefulness required to pull it off. A good prank may be mischievous, but never malicious.
College football games are the target of many creative pranks — especially from engineering schools that don't have teams. In 1982, the Harvard/Yale game was interrupted when a weather balloon popped out from under the grass field. Painted with the letters "MIT," it continued to inflate until bursting in an explosion of talcum powder. Remnants of the balloon are housed at the MIT museum.
But what's considered by many to be the greatest college prank ever was perpetrated by the California Institute of Technology in 1961. The lack of a football team wasn't going to stop a dedicated group of fourteen students from getting into the Rose Bowl — football's oldest and most prestigious event. After all, the stadium was practically in Caltech's backyard. NBC carried the game live, a game that pitted the Washington Huskies against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The prank involved flip cards — large colored squares given to Husky fans sitting in a designated part of the stadium. The fans also got instruction sheets. When cheerleaders yelled "number three," a fan's instruction sheet might read "hold up the red side of the flip card."
The instruction sheets were designed to display fifteen Husky inspired images. Or so the Huskies thought. Caltech engineers had changed the sheets — all twenty-two hundred of them.
The first eleven images went as the Huskies expected. But on the twelfth, the giant Husky face looked strangely like a Beaver — the Caltech mascot. The thirteenth spelled "HUSKIES," but backward. It was the fourteenth, however, that brought things to a halt, as the Husky fans spelled out "CALTECH." The timing was perfect. The band stopped playing, its music replaced by murmurs from the crowd. Befuddlement slowly gave way to a realization of what must have happened. One hundred thousand attendees had witnessed a carefully engineered prank — along with tens of millions watching on their TVs.
The prank's success inspired a high tech version during the 1984 Rose Bowl, when two Caltech students hacked into the electronic scoreboard as part of a class project. From a remote location, they made it clear who was winning the game. No longer was UCLA beating Illinois. Instead, the scoreboard read "Caltech 38, MIT 9." In the rivalry between two pranksters, Caltech had gained the upper hand — at least, for the moment.
I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
B. Liebowitz. The Journal of the Institute for Hacks, Tomfoolery, and Pranks at MIT. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Museum, 1990.
SPORTS PEOPLE; Prank Pays Off. New York Times, January 4, 1984. See also http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=
The picture of CALTECH is widely circulated and considered in the public domain.
The picture of the MIT balloon at the Harvard/Yale game is taken from the Flickr web site, https://www.flickr.com/photos/yewjin/1854828/in/set-42726/.