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The Origin of “Hacker” April 1, 2008

Posted by Imran Ghory in Computer Security, etymology.

Everytime the media carries a sensationalist story about “hackers” committing cybercrimes there’s always an uproar among geeks about the misappropriation of the word “hacker”. Sadly it’s the geeks who are mistaken and not for once the media.

A few years ago Fred Shapiro tracked down the earliest known reference to computer hackers:

1963 The Tech (MIT student newspaper) 20 Nov. 1 Many telephone services have been curtailed because of so-called hackers, according to Prof. Carlton Tucker, administrator of the Institute phone system. … The hackers have accomplished such things as tying up all the tie-lines between Harvard and MIT, or making long-distance calls by charging them to a local radar installation. One method involved connecting the PDP-1 computer to the phone system to search the lines until a dial tone, indicating an outside line, was found. … Because of the “hacking,” the majority of the MIT phones are “trapped.”

This is the earliest know usage of hacker in the modern sense, the TMRC Dictionary has it a few years earlier but not in the computer sense. The earliest computer related uses of the term (through anecdotal evidence) were also malicious (although the term wasn’t originally intended maliciously – in practice it was) in the sense that they involved gaining unauthorized access to computers to play on.

The New Hacker's DictionaryThe modern “geek” definition of the term hacker to reflect a skilled programmer didn’t originate until the late seventies when the term ended up in the later famous Jargon File.

Intelligent Design for IdiotsThat doesn’t mean to say we should all stop using the word “hacker” in it’s positive sense, but as evidence advocating geeks we should at least stop claiming a false history to support our cause. As we all know where that ends up.

In response to those who disagree with me: If you think I’m wrong then show me the evidence, if you can find earlier records showing hack(er)s being used in a computer context in a non-“black hat” manner I’d be happy to retract my post and put the evidence up here.

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1. na - April 1, 2008

april fools joke?

2. tickletux - April 1, 2008

no actually it’s serious, maybe it was a bad day to post it :-)

3. Pius Uzamere - April 1, 2008

Actually, you’re the one who’s mistaken — history *does* support the benign view. As you note, the term hacker dates back even to the Tech Model Railroad Club. The term was generalized to include all sorts of neat but benign tomfoolery (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MIT_hack) including white hat phone phreaking. At MIT, there’s definitely always been a sense that hacking has a code of ethics and that people who do bad things under the guise of hacking aren’t hacking at all.

The Tech’s 1963 reference to malicious phreakers as hackers is the same as modern day references to crackers as hackers: a mistake.

4. tickletux - April 1, 2008

The secondary source of wikipedia doesn’t count as evidence, while you’re right term “hack” was used in a “positive” sense with regards to model railways, “hack” in the context of computers wasn’t. In the earliest days at TMRC it was used with regards to gain unauthorized access on MIT’s computer systems (although with less negative connotations then it has now). The modern geek “hacker” sense which is in common use now of an elite programmer didn’t come around until much later.

5. Aaron Bassett - April 2, 2008

You dismiss his source but are fine to support your defense of the media by using the media as a source?
(I know it is produced by students but it is still a newspaper)

Also I don’t see why you are limiting it to the earliest computer reference, as far as I can see your quote above is not really about computers itself. Technology, yes – computers, no.
Agreed it does say they used a computer, but there actual target was the phone system (so today they would be called phreakers)

6. The Editor - May 1, 2008

Thats kind of interesting, I guess people always find a way of exploiting things.

7. www.codingthewheel.com - May 4, 2008

I think the evidence is quite in favor of hacking being a black-hat term from the get go. It’s a leap to say otherwise. The “hacker as hero” or “Robin Hood hacker” motif, while fun to think about, doesn’t have much basis in reality… I’d be interested to see a (legit) piece of evidence to that effect.

8. Krimse - September 17, 2008

a) Criminal activity is not and has never been a defining part of a “hack” or “hacker”. That doesn’t mean a hacker can’t commit computer related crimes. But that is not what defines him/her. This is also what the originator of the 1959 TMRC dictionary claims (TMRC jargon was largely “copied” into the early computer culture).

b) As the jargon-file says, phreaking was considered a “semi-respectable activity among hackers”: “At one time phreaking was a semi-respectable activity among hackers; there was a gentleman’s agreement that phreaking as an intellectual game and a form of exploration was OK, but serious theft of services was taboo.”

c) And besides: just because a professor at the institution uses the word in an interview, doesn’t mean he actually knows how the people belonging to the culture use the word (he even says “the so-called”, which hints that he is not conversant with the culture himself). Even though his use of the word is not contradictory to this [non-criminal] definition.

To sum up: media is WRONG when they use the word hacker to imply a computer criminal when they do this regardless of his/her skill, creativity and ingenuity. A computer criminal CAN be a hacker, but it IS NOT, AND HAS NEVER BEEN, A DEFINING ATTRIBUTE of a hacker. Most uses of “hacker” in media is plainly wrong, and so are your interpretation of your sources, in my opinion.

9. ultimoAdios - January 19, 2009

Wonderful reading!

10. Murfreesboro Homes For Sale - April 23, 2009

Awesome write up, I am always looking for computer facts from the pass, I really enjoyed the one where Bill Gates said 640K would be enough memory for anyone.

11. AsbestosPoet - June 4, 2009

I was actually poking around for the etymology for the word just a while ago. Read this article, noticed it was rather old and continued on.

I found that the term does indeed originate from MIT. Apparently, in the early 60s there were two types of students: Tools and Hackers. It was presumed there was no middle ground.

The Tools would attend class regularly, get straight As and be in the library if there weren’t any classes. (I note here, with relish, that this term has entered pop-culture’s slang lexicon as a derogatory term).

Hackers, on the other hand, were Tools’ antithesis. They didn’t go to classes, didn’t get good marks, slept in all day. What set them above drop-outs was the fact that they had a hobby. Trains, construction, and also: computers.

BTW, you can’t cite a media as a source for etymology. A newspaper’s goal is to sell newspapers. To that end, they will always slant things, people, and groups in such a way that it is sensationalist. A white-hat hacker isn’t sensational. A black-hat cracker is. Add to the above mix, a general misunderstanding of word usage, and you’ve got a recipe to (incorrectly) use the word ‘hacker’ to describe a malicious cracker.

If I had a penny for every time the mass-media misinterpreted something, I’d be buying up a controlling share of Microsoft’s stock.

The source I will cite for the origin of the word: http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~bh/hacker.html

Najla - June 2, 2012

An impressive share, I just given this onto a clugealoe who was doing a little analysis on this. And he in fact bought me breakfast because I found it for him.. smile. So let me reword that: Thnx for the treat! But yeah Thnkx for spending the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love reading more on this topic. If possible, as you become expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more details? It is highly helpful for me. Big thumb up for this blog post!

12. Forkbomb - April 1, 2011

No, this has to be an April fools joke. There is no way this “author” can justifice the useage of the word hacker to describe, what we have come to know as, a computer hacker. Even if the word hacker was used FIRST, doesn’t mean it’s the CORRECT word.

*Thumbs down*


13. Jabba - February 20, 2013

Actually, trying to demonstrate your point you are strengthening my opposite view. You want evidence, but evidence are those many people who, for many years, have been saying that they used to refer to themselves as “hackers” only in a positive sense. You are simply not believing them. It is not (only) the press that defines words. What you posted is first known reference of the word hacker in a mistaken way. Prof Tucker was not a member of the hacker community, in fact he says “so called hacker”. It is likely that the hacker community, despite its honor-code, was not in its entirety committed to it, but messing up the meaning of the term is unfair to those who were, and who are, still committed.

14. penny - March 10, 2013

Why can the term not derive logically from the original literal verb of “to hack” from 13th century: to chop, hack, hew, which is a perfect image for gaining access to something difficult? The original slang usage seemed to communicate accessing success a different way, maybe a harder way, not as an academic grind, but as an inventive outlier. It seems that the term is universally accurate as one who accesses or trespasses into an existing system for the purpose of modifying or liberating something about the system’s original designed purpose. In this definition, it hews (pun) to a variation on h[ij]acker: one who seizes a system for another purpose.

15. penny - March 10, 2013

And trying to halt the evolution of or guard the purity of a linguistic term is impossible. Saying a programmer has sick skills[z] would communicate (be widely understood as) something entirely different today than it would have in 1963. Once a term has a popular tipping point, it has been repurposed, or hacked, in the public lexicon.

16. Jay Phoenix - June 7, 2013

Penny, I really like your point, but I’m curious if you think “hacker” still has the same power that it used to have in today’s world. With computer crime becoming more of a society topic do you think there are other buzz words that hold more weight?

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