June 4, 1903. Guglielmo Marconi, inventor and electrical engineer known for pioneering long distance radio transmissions, stood on a cliff in Cornwall, England. He was poised to send a Morse code message 300 miles away to the venerable lecture hall of London’s Royal Institution, where a hushed audience waited.
His goal was to prove that Morse code messages could be sent over long distances, without wires. Moreover, Marconi had bragged to London’s St. James Gazette in February of 1903 that he could tune his instruments so that “no other instrument that is not similarly tuned can tap my messages.”
In front of the eager crowd, physicist Ambrose Fleming was adjusting the apparatus to receive Marconi’s message. According to Paul Marks, Senior Technology Correspondent for New Scientist, that’s when the fun began.
They Smelled A Rat, Rat, Rat!
Fleming suddenly heard a series of taps over the hall’s sound system. At first, it sounded like a technical glitch. But it didn’t take long for Fleming and his assistant, Arthur Blok, to realize that someone was intentionally beaming pulses powerful enough to interfere with their projector. Blok decoded the message, which was spelling the same word over and over: Rats. Rats. Rats.
That attention grabber was followed by a limerick: “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily.” This was followed by an assortment of rude insults from Shakespeare, then suddenly ceased just before Marconi’s message arrived from Cornwall.
Mum should have been the word. While Fleming and Blok were quite astonished, the audience remained clueless and Marconi’s demonstration appeared to be successful. Unfortunately, a furious Fleming could not hold his tongue. Instead, he fired off a letter to the The Times of London, urging the person responsible for such “scientific hooliganism” to step forward.
The Magic Troll Appears
Four days later, 39-year-old magician, Nevil Maskelyne, took full credit for the hacking incident in a letter to The Times, thereby revealing the flaws in the technology which he had proved was anything but private.
There was a reason for the mayhem he caused. In essence, he had smuggled a gun through airport security to point out the weaknesses in the system. Maskelyn wanted the public to know that if they sent their messages wirelessly, anyone could read them.
Further, he was able to disrupt the demonstration by simply setting up a simple transmitter and Morse code key nearby. It was like boosting your neighbor’s wireless signal or hopping onto a police scanner.
Why’d He Do It?
Maskelyne, a successful magician who wrote several books on magic that are still in print today, had a personal beef with Marconi. He had been working on wireless communication for his “mind-reading” act, but was frozen out because of Marconi’s basic patents. (Discussed in detail in Wireless by Sungook Hong.)
Wired Telegraphy Companies Upstaged
Marconi’s wireless communication was a disruptive technology for wired telegraphy, much like the train systems were disrupted by the emergence of automobiles. Aware of Maskelyne’s frustrations with Marconi, it is believed that the Eastern Telegraph Company enlisted his services to help them undermine the new technology.
They had invested heavily in land and sea cable networks as well as flotillas of ships and crews. Marconi threatened their business model. After Marconi sent a transatlantic wireless message on December 12, 1901, the company hired Maskelyne to work his magic.
Coding and Enigma Machines
Eventually, communications experts figured out how to code messages so they could not be intercepted by a simple rig set up next door. Electro-mechanical rotor cipher were used through the twentieth century for enciphering and deciphering secret messages.
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