Hacking Marconi's Wireless in 1903

A great story:

Yet before the demonstration could begin, the apparatus in the lecture theatre began to tap out a message. At first, it spelled out just one word repeated over and over. Then it changed into a facetious poem accusing Marconi of “diddling the public”. Their demonstration had been hacked—and this was more than 100 years before the mischief playing out on the internet today. Who was the Royal Institution hacker? How did the cheeky messages get there? And why?

Posted on December 29, 2011 at 9:47 AM18 Comments


gasche December 29, 2011 10:15 AM

There are two elements that make it a truly excellent story. If you didn’t include them to preserve suspense, please feel free to remove my post.

  • The hacker’s motivation is to avenge overly broad patents that prevented him from developing his own technology.
  • The hacking instruments are huge and costly; the funding came from a competitor whose business was endangered by this new wireless technology.

Randy December 29, 2011 12:05 PM

Good thing the DMCA wasn’t in force then.

What Maskelyne did (breaking the security (DRM?)) would be illegal today.

Randy — hewastheworldsfirstblackhathacker

greyfade December 29, 2011 1:21 PM

I’m with Johnson here: it was surely Tesla. He believed strongly that Marconi stole the ideas for wireless from him. There was even enough evidence of that that the US Supreme Court posthumously awarded priority for Marconi’s patents to Tesla in 1943!

jacob December 29, 2011 3:12 PM

I always suspected geek hackers have always existed. Probably neaderthals were hacking cave painting and arrowheads…smart asses have always been around. practical jokes too. 🙂

Roger December 29, 2011 4:10 PM

It wasn’t Tesla. His technical “wireless wizardry” is much exggerated by his groupies today. In reality he was years behind Marconi (and far less sophisticated technically), and in 1903 he simply wasn’t up to this. (And outside the US, the US Supreme Court decision on Marconi’s patents is widely regarded as pure jingoism — and contrary to the usual blurbs of the Teslaphiles, it was not based solely on Tesla’s contributions.)

This “hack” was really a brute force attack presented in a tricksy manner, and was only possible because a major commercial competitor was behind it, and put a lot of money into it.

The first demonstrations of radio transmission were made by Heinrich Hertz in the 1880s. In the 1890s, a lot of people had been working on radio phenomema: Oliver Heaviside, Edouard Branly, John Stone, Oliver Lodge, Alexander Popov, Nikola Tesla and of course Guglielmo Marconi — and no doubt many others. Most of them were concerned with it purely as an interesting new phenomenon. Tesla was primarily interested in it for energy transmission (disastrously for him, as such a thing is possible in principle, but far too grossly inefficient for practical use — and Tesla should have realised this if his mathematical theory had been stronger.)

Marconi was interested primarily in building a practical communication system, and his contribution lay largely in improvements in antenna design that were a result of his own experimental work; in bringing together the incremental improvements of several others (some of whom where paid for their work); and in what we would today call “optimisation.” These were not minor contributions; they turned radio transmission from a laboratory toy with a practical range of a few yards, into a practical communication system with a range of miles. (He reached 10 miles by 1897, 60 miles by 1899, and thousands of miles by 1901; no-one else was even close to this.) For example, Marconi’s coherers were certainly based on Branly’s work, but Marconi’s were more than an order of magnitude more sensitive.

Part of this was the use of “syntonic” circuits which were tuned to particular frequencies — and subject to numerous patent disputes, as to who invented them. Probably Lodge was first, although certainly the idea is strongly suggested by Maxwell’s basic theory from the 1860s, and was independently re-invented by several people in rapid succession around this time. A tuned circuit enables the receiver to have far better discrimination of signal over noise, and so to pick up much weaker (i.e. more distant) signals. This was what enabled Marconi’s equipment to attain transatlantic range.

So to cut a long story short (“too late!” they cried), Maskelyne’s crude spark transmitter could intrude on the demonstration at the Royal Institute, but only if it were very much closer than the intended transmitter. The fact the signal was picked up even by the arc lamp suggests that it was less than a hundred yards away. Similarly, Maskelyne’s very much cruder receiver could pick up Marconi’s transmissions from Cornwall because it was hundreds of times closer than the intended recipients. However it certainly could not receive the replies from ships at sea, and unless the message itself gacve it away, it could not tell for whom the transmission was intended. Even though Maskelyne was supposed to be demonstrating that wired telepgraphy was more secure, his demonstration actually offerred less in the way of a “hack” than simply tapping a telegraph line!

Maskelyne’s demonstration did show that “syntonic circuits” offer very imperfect security, yet Fleming was right to suggest that it was more of a trick than a hack.

anton December 29, 2011 6:22 PM

More often than not, when a new technology concept or design is ripe for the picking it rears up its head in various locations, so I don’t see why the first to the post at the patents office should reap all the benefits.

The US in particular is getting very aggressive in hammering it’s technology advantage (e.g. apple) using legal means.

I think such action is cowardly and perhaps downright evil. From this point of view I support hackers who’s sole motivation is to work against such miserable tactics.

sparkygsx December 29, 2011 7:17 PM

I’d think the solution would have been quite obvious; simply transmit a lot of junk on a lot of different frequencies, so the attacker can’t (easily) find the real message in the noise. This is a bit like how DECT works.

Also, I thought cryptography had advanced quite a bit by 1900; why try to hide the channel when you can code the message? The only real disadvantage I can think of is that the operators can’t recognise words by the “rythm” of the code.

Nobodyspecial December 29, 2011 9:25 PM

@sparkygsx – security through obscurity, always the first choice!

Encryption was a big problem in wired telegraphy. Operators were much faster and more reliable at sending real sentences than random streams of characters.

So the telegraph companies banned non-words but still charged by the word, so people made up codes where long obscure words represented whole sentences.

The companies tried to fix this as well – by banning messages that didn’t make sense!

godzilla ate his own balls January 2, 2012 6:07 PM

I’d be interested in knowing how much encrypted information is sent to us visually on our new [forced-to-upgrade] high-def televisions…

Jim A January 3, 2012 9:53 AM

Re: code via telegraph. I was under the impression that the telegraph companies didn’t ban encrypted messages (too big a market) but that they charged more. And the ease of sending real words isn’t just the implied human error correcting implied. International Morse code is designed so that the more common letters have the shorter transmission times. “E” is a single dot, “T” a single dash, “A” is single dot followed by a single dash etc.

jgor January 3, 2012 11:07 AM

It’s always interesting to find examples of the hacker spirit in the days before the computer. Lockpicking is another area of security that has a fascinating history with regard to hacking and security research…and coincidentally was also often cracked by magicians (Houdini was an accomplished lockpicker).

Schuyler Towne, an internationally-ranked competitive lockpicker turned researcher/historian, gave a fantastic talk at LayerOne 2011 (and reprised at BSides Las Vegas) on lockpicking in the 19th century and specifically how security researchers (hackers, by another word) were celebrated for publicly finding weaknesses in locking systems. I highly encourage people to check out his talk – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDkD3klizaQ

Natanael L January 5, 2012 7:27 AM

“The companies tried to fix this as well – by banning messages that didn’t make sense!”

There’s this saying (can’t find a source for it right now); “the last fight will be over random data” (steganography).

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