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Slashdot's Top 10 Hacks of all Time 760

C|Net recently made waves with its "Top 10 Hacks" story which seemed to say that Hack==Website Defacement. Derek Glidden found that wrong. And I'm glad he did because he's proposed that we do our own top 10 hacks. He's written a fabulous article, and challanges us to come up with a real list of hacks: The good stuff. Not the script kiddie stuff that the media likes to use to generate extreme headlines. Read this story. Its a good one.

A lot of people pointed out in Slashdot's recent coverage of an article run on C|Net called "The Top 10 Subversive Hacks of All Time" that 8 out of the 10 so-called "Hacks" listed were merely website defacements and not deserving of the "Hack" label at all. Here's your chance, as the Slashdot community, to set the record straight!

C|Net, perhaps in some kind of bizarre response to millenia fever, has lately been printing a few "Top 10 Lists" of sensational-sounding topics but rather lame content:

The Top 10 Technology Terrors - Billed as "10 products that will scare you to death" complete with a cute little Grim Fandango-esque skeleton as a mascot. Of course Back Orifice is on the list. Are you terrified yet?
Top Ten Terrors That Scare Web Builders - I'm not even sure where this article is supposed to be going. I know when I'm building a website I'm always "scared" of the Y2K problem as it relates to interfacing with my mainframe...
Ten Tricks for Digital Pranksters - Which I'd hoped might be at least slightly amusing, but turns out to be amusing in the same way that going to a K-Mart, finding the Commodore 64's on display, disabling BREAK and writing that BASIC program '10 PRINT "K-MART SUCKS "; 20 GOTO 10' was amusing when I was 12. (But then, it's not a "Top Ten" list, so I shouldn't complain.)

Given the trend, one wonders when their "Top 10 Pr0n Websites That Will Make Your Child Grow Up Into A Pervert If He or She So Much As Thinks About The URL", "Top 10 Most Violent Video Games Guaranteed To Make The Flesh Of Your Flesh And Blood Of Your Blood Turn Into A Deviant Sociopath Who Will Probably Shoot Up A McDonalds By The Time They're 25" or "Top 10 Really Annoying Top 10 Lists That We've Broken Up Into One Page Per Entry To Maximize Our Banner Ad Display" lists will show up.

Regardless of whether or not C|Net gets it in general, (I think I've made my opinion on that clear by now. :) they surely dropped the ball on their "Hacks" article. Rob and the gang at Slashdot liked my suggestion that the question be put to the Slashdot community and find out what you consider a "Great Hack."

So what is a "Hack"?

A lot of people reading that article were disappointed that C|Net decided to more or less define "Hack" as being equivalent to "website defacement", completely ignoring the traditional, more creative and useful meaning of the word. (Notice here how I deftly sidestep the whole 'hacker' vs. 'cracker' debate...) How should we determine what's a "Great Hack", much less the Top 10 of All Time, then?

Eric Raymond's Jargon File defines "Hack" in the first two meanings as:

"1. n. Originally, a quick job that produces what is needed, but not well. 2. n. An incredibly good, and perhaps very time-consuming, piece of work that produces exactly what is needed."

(Which are entirely contradictory, but hackers never let mundane things like paradoxes slow them down.) He further refines the meaning in Append ix A, "The Meaning of Hack" as:

"Hacking might be characterized as `an appropriate application of ingenuity'. Whether the result is a quick-and-dirty patchwork job or a carefully crafted work of art, you have to admire the cleverness that went into it."

If you'll notice, nothing in these definitions say anything about a "Hack" being computer-related. There have been many great Hacks that are not computer-related; it's just that people tend to associate the word "hack" with computers.

Adding to the ideas defined above, an "All-Time Great Hack" will probably also have:

  • longevity - people should still be talking about it 20 or 30 years later, or even beyond.
  • social and/or technological impact - it should change some aspect of life, either by directly changing every-day life or indirectly by changing how people view the world
  • "eleganc e" - note however, that this does not necessarily equate simplicty. (Some people may consider the Saturn V booster a truly moby hack, as it got its job done precisely well with no doubt as to its purpose, but was anything but simple.)
  • that not-easily definable quality of "I shoulda thought of that!" A Great Hack doesn't have to be "not immediately obvious" - it may just be something nobody else has done yet. For example: the WWW - there's nothing "unobvious" about defining a set of page layout macros that include text and graphics and a way to transmit and view them, but it didn't become commonplace until Tim Berners-Lee made it a big deal.

Some examples of things I would consider "Great Hacks" by these guidelines:

  • Putting Apollo 11 on the moon - the NASA engineers at the time of the Apollo project are, to my mind, some of the greatest hackers in history. When you consider the state of technology at the time, what they accomplished is amazing.
  • Ken Thompson's "cc hack" - No explanation necessary. A truly elegant hack that is already part of computer folklore.
  • Both the "development" of AT&T UNIX into BSD UNIX and the way BSD was distributed, essentially creating the first widespread market demand for "open source software."
  • Of course, no Slashdot feature article would be complete without mentioning: the development of the Linux Kernel, both for what it is and how it was/is developed.

But wait, there's more!!

In his Appendinx on "The Meaning Of Hack", ESR also says:

"An important secondary meaning of hack is `a creative practical joke'."

and MIT's Gallery of Hacks defines "hack" as:

"The word hack at MIT usually refers to a clever, benign, and "ethical" prank or practical joke, which is both challenging for the perpetrators and amusing to the MIT community (and sometimes even the rest of the world!)."

A sure point of dissent in this definition is going to be the "ethical" clause. I'll take the easy road out and leave this point to be decided by the audience - if enough people think a particular hack is a "Great Hack" regardless of ethics - then into the pot it goes.

On the other hand, the closest thing I can think of to a "Great Hack" that skirts ethical boundaries is the Robert Morris Worm. It's an event that will live in infamy in the lore of the Internet for all times for the problems it caused, but that it could accomplish what it did shows an incredible understanding of the way the systems worked and how they were interconnected at the time it happened.

It's still not entirely easy to think of "All-Time Great Hacks" that fit this definition, including the "ethical" clause:

  • The canonical example is usually the MIT hack of the Harvard-Yale football game in which MIT students caused a six-foot weather baloon covered with the letters "MIT" to inflate at the 40 yard line during a pause in gameplay
  • In the Slashdot article, "Uruk" pointed out that Orson Welles' broadcast of "The War Of The Worlds" in 1938 is arguably the best example of this definition of "Hack" that the world has ever known

So we have two definitions to deal with: The "Classic" Hacks, and the "MIT-Style" Hacks. It may or may not be worthwhile to separate these out into two distinct categories - I think we'll have to wait to see if there are enough unique entries in each category to require two lists.

What now?

In this feature, I would like you to list what you think are the "Greatest Hacks of All Time" and after a time to let enough people enter their suggestions and comments, I'll come back and gather up the most popular/frequent responses. Those suggestions will go up as a Slashdot poll, and the top ten from that poll will be officially listed in a subsequent feature article: "Slashdot's Top 10 Hacks of All Time" along with a bit of background on each one; rather like C|Net, except we'll put them all on one page for you.

There is only one restriction I would like to impose on suggestions: they have to be able to be documented somehow. I used to know a guy who could make his TRS-80 machines play music with software that somehow buzzed the floppy disk motor at different rates, which is a neat hack, but as I have no idea where he lives, if he still has a copy of his software, or even where to find a TRS-80 to play with anymore it's not a good candidate for this.

I've defined what it takes for a hack to be a "Great Hack", I've given some examples to help "seed the idea pool", and now it's your turn: what do you think should go on Slashdot's list of the Top 10 Hacks of All Time?

This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Slashdot's Top 10 Hacks of all Time

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  • Alright "hacking" as was the popular understanding of it was really dead back in the early days of the internet. With various crypto schemes and security measures it has become increasingly difficult to do anything very effective. Modern operating systems like linux/*BSD/*nix, etc have allowed for very rigid system security. I guess the only places left are windows boxes.
  • One of the top hacks I would like to see is the cracking of the RSA? encryption. This was quite the fascinating hack, and I feel that it is well deserving to be placed on the list
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Abbey Hoffman has pulled off some of the greatest hacks in all history, but I don't think any of them involved computers. Boy did he stick it to Ma Bell.....
  • by Pyr ( 18277 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:09AM (#1506988) Homepage
    As a host on C|Net's Builder Buzz I'm not exactly an employee, but I do spend a lot more time around C|Net and C|net folk than I'm sure most /. readers except the employees and I have to say with the "Top Ten Subversive Hacks", or "Top Ten Things that scare Web Builders" they're not trying ot be frightening or sensationalist, they're more trying to be interesting and a little funny.

    When they did their "Top Ten Clients from Hell" on builder.com they had goofy little graphics on those too, as they do most of their articles. It should be obvious to most of you (esp. the web builders) that they're not saying these types of clients ARE literally from hell (Just as Back Orifice isn't literally "terrifying), they're just trying to give all of us who have GONE THROUGH that kind of thing a little laugh and some help for dealing with these people.

    You guys take C|Net too seriously, and I don't think they deserve the criticism you give them.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:09AM (#1506989)
    I nominate the first person to write a video game machine emulator for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The backwards-hacking involved in learning enough to even start the project is extremely impressive. To then take it and write an emulator is equally impressive (anyone who has tried to write an emulator knows its not as easy as it sounds even WITH all the tech info). But why the NES instead of one of the other systems, and what about the newer ones like the N64 and PSX that are getting emulated? Well, the N64 and PSX emulators aren't really true emulators and while they do do some neat hacks, they inherit a whole lot from what started with NES emulators. In case you didn't know, there are over 100 separate memory mapping schemes (implemented via chips on the cartridges) to take into account, as well as some strange programming habits followed by the game developers (especially Squaresoft) that made debugging extremely hard.


  • Deep Blue II was a very elegant hack, incorporating a wide variety of technologies for one stupid little purpose.


  • by Kinthelt ( 96845 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:10AM (#1506992) Homepage
    This has to be among the top 10. Not only did it fool just about everybody on Usenet, it was benign (a Good Thing).

    See the jargon file entry [tuxedo.org]

  • by pb ( 1020 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:11AM (#1506993)
    Anyone remember the Second Reality demo for the PC in 1993 [hornet.org]? Amazing, right? Well, the only thing that could possibly top that would be...

    Second Reality for the C64 in 1997 [maz-sound.com]! I was amazed, the sound was very good (and the video somewhat limited for obvious reasons :) and it ran fine on vice, with a little tweaking. :)
    pb Reply or e-mail rather than vaguely moderate [].
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:11AM (#1506994)
    The U.S. Constitution is one of the top ten hacks of all time!

    Balancing states' rights, balancing power among three branches, with a guarantee of a free press to keep them all in line... User-modifiable, but only if they really are sure about what they're doing...
  • by sufi ( 39527 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:11AM (#1506995) Homepage
    The question is, what percentage of the really good cracks do we actually get to hear about?

    I mean, the major companies would put people under pain of death for leaking any information about the really dangerous interesting non script kiddy stuff. I think there are many more out there than we know about, and probably some very rich people because of them. It's just impossible to tell.

    Of course, it's funny how people can actually use being cracked to their advantage. As with the UK Conservative Party who last night announced that a 'hacker' had tampered with their accounts, coincidentaly the same day as a major newspaper revealed that the Conservative Party had been fidling their books for the umpteenth time in the past few years.

    Slightly suspect I think
  • by Paolo ( 87425 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:12AM (#1506996) Homepage
    This is one thing which comes to my mind when I think of a great (in this case, hardware) hack. Compaq used the annals of law and engineers to reverse engineer the IBM PC's BIOS and general hardware interactions. It was clever, they worked around the clock, and it was a marvel they got it working right.
  • by Croaker ( 10633 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:13AM (#1506998)

    The legend of Woz [woz.org] coming up with the floppy controller for the Apple II on a napkin, and implementing it in an insanely short amount of time is definitly a legendary hack.

    Hell, for that matter, the Apple II entirely was a hack. Name another commercial PC which was designed by one person. And, I believe, he wrote the first OS for it, to boot.

  • I'd nominate TEX - well designed, elegant, usefull, and 100% bugless! Perhaps the only bugless program in existance.

    also GNU emacs is quite a hack.
  • by schporto ( 20516 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:14AM (#1507001) Homepage
    I think the recovery of Apollo 13 was a much better hack than Apollo 11. True Apollo 11 was a magnificent piece of work. Achieveing exactly what was desired. But Apollo 13 required true ingenuity by most parties involved. And using the ship in manners not really expected. Just my opinion.
  • by tweek ( 18111 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:14AM (#1507003) Homepage Journal

    A simple text processing language gone haywire ;)
    Seriously though, a simple hack that went from a tool to produce reports has become a driving force behind the web.
    "We hope you find fun and laughter in the new millenium" - Top half of fastfood gamepiece
  • by Matts ( 1628 )

    Without this small hack of a utility bringing peoples changes to widely distributed sources would be a never ending pain. Of course patch isn't perlfect (yes, I did spell it wrong on purpose :)), but it does a damn fine job under the circumstances, and is used by an awful lot of people - myself included. Thanks Larry.

    Things I don't consider hacks: Linux 2.0+, emacs, XFree (!), enlightenment, gnome, kde.
  • by Jjaks ( 104293 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:18AM (#1507007)
    These are my suggestions for greatest hacks:
    1. The so called bombes, developed by polish scientists and improved by Alan Turing & co, that broke the german enigma codes during WWII. This was truly advanced stuff in those days!
    2. As was stated in the article, putting Apollo 11 on the moon is truly amazing stuff.
    3. Xerox's invention of the desktop metaphor, which was later used by Apple, Microsoft and of coursse X Windows. This way of using computers will probably be dominant for a long time yet.
  • by rde ( 17364 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:18AM (#1507008)
    The mars pathfinder was, IMHO, a truly elegant hack. It was, to coin a phrase, better, cheaper and faster than other Mars missions, it did everything it was supposed to (and more) and -- this is important -- it was cool. It landed on the planet in a big ball and bounced to a halt.
    Innovative technology and bouncing probes. Coolness epitomised.
  • by vitaflo ( 20507 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:20AM (#1507010) Homepage
    Who could forget the Star Wars R2D2 "hack" of the Great Dome at MIT right before the Phantom Menace came out? I think this counts as a hack, even if it isn't computer related (it certainly is geek related). Here's some links for those who forgot this one:

    http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/nr/19 99/r2d2.html [mit.edu]

    http://slashdot.org/ar ticle.pl?sid=99/05/18/193234&mode=flat [slashdot.org]
  • by Dicky ( 1327 ) <slash3@vmlinuz.org> on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:20AM (#1507011) Homepage
    The April Fools joke pulled by /. [slashdot.org] , BeDope [bedope.com] , Segfault [segfault.org] and User Friendly [userfriendly.org] .

    Anyone who doesn't know the story should check the BeDope story [bedope.com], the User Friendly story [userfriendly.org], the segfault story [segfault.org], or one of the stories at /. [slashdot.org]

  • by Denor ( 89982 ) <denor@yahoo.com> on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:20AM (#1507012) Homepage
    I'm surprised that nobody's come up with this one yet. This hack not only influences the computer world, but it was executed with an MIT attention to style and trickery. Everyone here's already seen it, but it needs to make the list:

  • Well it did come from "A patchie program".

    My reasons:
    • longevity - people should still be talking about it 20 or 30 years later, or even beyond. social and/or technological impact - it should change some aspect of life, either by directly changing every-day life or indirectly by changing how people view the world

      Ok, so it hasn't been around for 20 or 30 years. But I believe that it will be. And did it have an impact, well there was an article on /. a little while back that said if it wasn't for Apache, then we would all be using NT servers.

    • "eleganc e" - note however, that this does not necessarily equate simplicty. (Some people may consider the Saturn V booster a truly moby hack, as it got its job done precisely well with no doubt as to its purpose, but was anything but simple.)

      Look, it was done with patches. It wasn't until they realized that they had a full web server that it became a program. How more elegant is that

    • that not-easily definable quality of "I shoulda thought of that!" A Great Hack doesn't have to be "not immediately obvious" - it
      may just be something nobody else has done yet. For example: the WWW - there's nothing "unobvious" about defining a set of page layout macros that include text and graphics and a way to transmit and view them, but it didn't become commonplace
      until Tim Berners-Lee made it a big deal.

      Hey, right after WWW became big, I should have wrote a "free" web server and I could have been famous!

    There you have it. Thats my vote for one of the Top Ten Greatest Hacks!

    Way to go you Apache guys (and gals?)!!!!!

    Steven Rostedt
  • by BNL Psycho ( 28888 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:25AM (#1507021)


    Who can deny the greatness of a man who can build a sports car out of nothing more than:

    • some chewing gum
    • a couple of paper clips
    • 4 AOL cd's
    • and some hairspray?

    You know it to be true...

  • by jd ( 1658 ) <imipak.yahoo@com> on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:25AM (#1507024) Homepage Journal
    This is difficult. Ok, I'll have it a go. These are in no particular order, despite being numbered.

    1. The roller/pulley system the Egyptians used to move those large sandstone blocks.
    2. The Viking Longboat* (This one'll take explaining)
    3. The spur
    4. The DeHaviland Mosquito** (Again, I'll explain this one)
    5. The Williams Tube (The first optical computer memory system)
    6. The Internal (Infernal?) Combustion Engine
    7. Stonehenge
    8. Sir Isaac Newton's Catflap
    9. The Printing Press
    10. The Transputer

    * - The Viking Longboat was no ordinary boat. It was designed to be sailed up a low-lying beach, picked up by the oars, and carried to where the raid was to be. Treasure could then just be thrown into the boat, by the raiders, allowing them to take more than they could possibly have done, if they'd had to shove the loot into pockets.

    ** - The DeHaviland Mosquito was an equisite hack. To improve speed and survival odds, it was built entirely out of pressed plywood, using the same techniques as the old biplanes. This was the first time anyone had tried using those principles to build a large aircraft.

  • by Moses P. Lester ( 83921 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:26AM (#1507025) Homepage
    Top 10 hack: The British Empire. Perpetrated by Gandhi in the early 20th century. He drove out one of the most powerful countries on Earth by sitting down and not eating. I'd call that clever.
  • by john_gault ( 115165 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:29AM (#1507029)
    There are a few essential elements that make up a "hack" in my mind that seem to have either been glazed over or not given due importance in the definition presented.

    A hack is performed in a situation where no tool currently exists for the job, and the custom tool winds up being built out of peices at hand (usually grossly inadequate) or completely from scratch. As much as I hate those kinds of shows, McGyver (sp?) would be a prime example of this. I can also think of numerous trail fixes while on a motorcycle or in a 4-wheel drive that were complete and total hacks, getting me back to civilization with bailing wire and duct tape.

    A hack is often performed under a time crunch, thus a large reason for the lack of documentation and/or the job being done properly. A lack of planning also seems to be a common element, but this is frequently due to the nature of completely unexplored territory -- hard to plan for what you don't know about.

    Very frequently, large amounts of caffiene and/or nicotine are involved. I really don't think I need to expound on this one.

    The job makes you incredibly proud of something that is often horribly ugly, and that the majority of other people view as something akin to magic (have no concept of how such job could possibly have been done or what was involved).

    There is something intangible about a hack that will have a different meaning for everybody. But I do think that the most important element was hit upon in the article: CREATIVITY!!!

    Can't wait to see the list and the nominees.
  • I read the cc hack page...but I don't see what is so great about it. It seemed that since the old compiler didn't yet know what a given escape was, the ascii code was substituted for it. Is that the hack?

    The replicating bugs was interesting...but I'm not sure I understood what the point was in showing it was possible to create compilers which introduced bugs. woo
  • by Yogurtu ( 11354 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:31AM (#1507035) Homepage
    Clifford Stoll made an amazing application of ingenuity if there was one; the book about how he got the crackers is a must.
    'An intrusion? Nah, ours is a secure shop'

  • by GC ( 19160 ) <giles@coochey.net> on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:32AM (#1507041)
    Actually you'll probably find that the top ten "hacks" as C|Net define them have not yet been discovered.

    If your "hack" is discovered then it obviously wasn't very good :)
  • Made by John Carmack in a day on a bet.

    Makes me think, "damn, that guy is good"

  • Yes, it's from Microsoft. No, this isn't flamebait. Paul Allen's DEBUG.COM remains to this day IMHO the best software MS has ever produced.

    Runner up: the F0 0F bugfix.

    -- Robert
  • Even if you get in it dosn't mean you can do anything. Encryption and it's use is one of the reasons you really can't do anything. Most standard servers (think .gov, .mil and other DoD related computing environments) offered the same set of services as they did before just all the easy holes were removed. You can't tell me that say Unix security hasn't increased in the past 20 years can you? If sites are using unix as an operating system then one could easily state that system security has increased from the past. The only things we have left are DoS attacks and things with the network protocols. Most deamons actually (at least in the linux) world are not run with special priviledges or anything. Debian routinely makes things secure. Yes there are bugs but nothing in the past history (in net time) for a while has there been any problems.
  • by pb ( 1020 )
    Huh? Emacs and XFree are definitely hacks, in one way or another. (Originally perhaps more the April Fool's variety, I'm afraid...)

    Emacs: Let's write a LISP INTERPRETER on top of UNIX and call it a TEXT EDITOR!!!

    If that shouldn't be a Zippy quote, I don't know what is. I'm not even going into byte-compiling, since Java took that seriously... They even gave you hints by including Zippy, *and* a free psych evaluation for when you got frustrated. :)

    XFree: Same thing.

    Let's run X WINDOWS on the PC and use it as a LOW-COST SOLUTION!!!

    You've got to realize that both of these things would be completely unrealistic for when it started. Oh, except for the fact that X on a Sun 4 was just as slow as X on a 486... The only thing scarier than that would be the X Server for DOS that I played around with for a while.

    Of course, many people are doing great work on X, XFree, Emacs, XEmacs, etc., etc. Now. Just realize when they started (Emacs is an ancient MIT project!) and how silly it must have looked back then. (ed! ed is the standard! text editor.)

    And patch is probably most responsible for forking code and saving bandwidth. In that order. Rather nominate the GPL, for preventing forking. :)
    pb Reply or e-mail rather than vaguely moderate [].
  • Things like VNC [att.com] deserve to be on the list. As do some other truly innovative tools. PGP comes to mind. That single-chip WWW server that we slashdotted about two months back.

    A port of Linux to a Rolex would be nice too. Linux on anything analog..

    We really should extend our definition of 'hack' to beyond the computer realm, at least for a top-ten list.

    While not hacks in the computer sense, the practical jokes that go on at MIT also deserve mention. I mean, turning buildings into giant VU meters for a concert... That's just plain COOL.

    Mars Pathfinder (and Apollo 13 while out there).

    The Blair Witch Project was a great hack. Both in the 'crude' sense of the word (badly made movie) and in the 'tweak' sense of the word, since the marketting was so subversive as to make many people BELIEVE it was a documentary.

  • I think a great hack was debugging the code in the Mars Pathfinder/Sojourner Rover after the vehicles had deployed on Mars. This was possible because the debugging tool had been built into the final software load and sent along. Running a debugging session with a many-light-minute delay loop was a really bold thing to do.
  • This famous sci-fi radio broadcast had everyone in America running for their lives, fearing an alien invasion... was probably a catalyst that produced increasing realism in the genre as well.
  • by slim ( 1652 )
    .. because sh/ksh/csh are *evil* for anything more than a very simple job. The bugs that creep into shell scripts are subtle, and sometimes don't show up for years.

    .. but of course, you can also write buggy Perl.

    I think the "beads" piece at the start of the (Camel|Llama) book (I forget which), sums it up -- Larry combined the "awk bead", the "sed bead", the "shell bead", a few other influences, and came up with a new bead which was more powerful than the sum of the other beads.

    It was a great hack, and the Perl community has done a great job of taking the hack, and fixing the problems which came about as a result of its hacky beginnings.

  • by costas ( 38724 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:43AM (#1507063) Homepage
    ...someone had to give at least one:

    The SR-71 Blackbird. [nasa.gov] It may not be a "classical" hack, 'coz Lockheed's Skunk Works had an unlimited budget to throw at the problem, but considering the technology at the time, it kicked some ass... Some stats, for the non-plane freaks out there:
    * Total time it took to design it and built a prototype: 6 (or maybe 8?) months. There are software programs out there that took a lot longer than that ;-)
    * It still (~40 years later) holds the title for the fastest *production* aircraft out there (err... at least non-classified ;-) Mach 3.62 is nothing to sneeze at...

    If you don't dare consider an airplane (i.e. a complete system) as a hack, consider the following:
    * The damn thing was almost entirely built of titanium alloy --only material available back then that could handle the temperatures involved. Problem: noone before was able to machine titanium. The Lockheed guys built an entire machine shop from scratch.
    * Titanium, as any metal, expands when heated: the planes had to have 'seams' in the wings that were closed when the sheetmetal expanded: the SR-71 leaked fuel (120 octane fuel) while parked on the runway!
    * The Pratt&Whitney (I think) folks had to come up with an engine that could change modes of operation in mid-flight: they made the first and only combination turbojet-ramjet engine. The Lockheed people had to make them work at any angle of attack. Yeah, it's esoteric, but the implementation is a tour-de-force to this day.
    * The poor Russians had no way to intercept these aircraft although they knew they were flying overhead and photgraphing everything (at Mach 3.62 the SR-71 could outrun any rocket or bullet at the time, and I it still can). So they build the all-steel Mig 29 (another great aircraft). But the -29 was too damn heavy to fly as high as the titanium-only -71, so the Soviets flew formations of -29s *under* the -71 to obstruct its camera's view...

    I highly reccommend the excellent "Skunk Works" book to anyone impressed by this... I just don't think most of the /.ers will care ;-(...

    I guess I have to put in a computer hack as well. Hmmm... : FSP (yeah, that's an 'S').

    engineers never lie; we just approximate the truth.
  • You'd be meaning The Story of Mel [tuxedo.org] then...
  • First, to Shimrod: you didn't finish reading the main article before you posted, did you? The author specifically mentioned this already.

    Second, to everybody: the Worm did not show any wizardly understanding of how everything worked. Gene Spafford (yes, /the/ spaf) wrote a couple of analysis papers of the Worm, after the code was decompiled. (His homepage is http://www.cerias.purdue.edu/homes/spaf/ if you want to download the paper(s).) One of his conclusions was the author(s) didn't really understand what was going on, because so much of the code was buggy, broken, or "dead" (i.e., unreachable). It is likely that a number of other people wrote the small intelligent bits, and that Morris (or whomever) just glued them all together.
  • Is the CC hack mentioned the same one as the famous "backdoor" introduced by Ken Thompson? I tried reading the article, but it didn't make much sense.

    In the early versions of Unix, there was a hack in CC so that if someone compiled a kernel, it would insert a backdoor so Ken Thompson could log into any Unix machine! Not only that, but it could also detect if the compiler was compiling itself so it could add the backdoor-producing code into the new compiler. Whew! Now that is some pretty complicated stuff. And oh-so-cool.

    Kind of leaves you thinking if there is something like that left in software today...

  • by chroma ( 33185 ) <`moc.gnirpsdnim' `ta' `amorhc'> on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:48AM (#1507074) Homepage
    Duff's device [lysator.liu.se]
  • According to the definitions above, a hack is something quick & simple yet has a serious impact. In some cases it's humorous. It's usually computer/engineering related.

    How about Microsoft's hack to stop Windows 3.x from running on top of DR-DOS.

    It must have been very easy. It had a huge impact on DR & Novell. I'm sure the guys in Redmond thought it was funny.

  • by RebornData ( 25811 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:52AM (#1507080)
    This is definitely an "MIT-style" hack- it does not involve computers, but is firmly embedded in the folklore of Rice University.

    The Rice Campus is built around a large, open "quad" surrounded by six of the major buildings on campus. In the center of the quad is a statue of William Marsh Rice, who provided the money for the school to get started. The statue is a slightly life-sized bronze of "Willy" sitting in a very large chair. I'm sure it weighs several tons, and is on top of a square stone bier over six feet tall which allegedly contains WMR's remains. (See here [rice.edu] for a picture).

    One morning in the late 80's, the students awoke to discover that Willy's statue had been perfectly rotated 180 degrees, with no trace of the equipment used to do it.

    It turns out that a group of engineering and architecture students had built some sort of inexpensive tripod-like "crane" that was lightweight, portable, and could be assembled *very* quickly. There were some nice subtlelties to the hack:

    1. The entire rig could be carried in the back of a pickup

    2. Willy is illuminated by a bright mercury vapor light at night. The students started turning the light off at 2:00am for a week prior to the planned rotation to reduce suspicion.

    3. Before the actual rotation, the students did a practice run on a previous night, where the statue was simply lifted a couple of inches off the pedestal and set back down again. Which means they effectively got away with it twice.

    One of the more humorous parts of the story was about what happened afterwards. The administration was *not amused*, and hired a professional contractor to turn the statue back around. The contractor damaged the statue in the process, and the university billed the students for the whole thing.

    Of course, they didn't have any money, so they created a tee-shirt about the rotation. They sold so many that they not only paid the bill, but netted an additional $7,000.

    Today, the statue is firmly anchored to it's base.

    Can any other Rice alums fill in the details I missed?
  • by georgeha ( 43752 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:52AM (#1507082) Homepage
    The Mitsubishi engineers wanted a certain level of performance out of his Zero, mostly very high maneuverability. They found that they couldn't make his design because using the materials handbooks, it would end up too heavy.

    So they bypassed the engineering materials handbooks, retested the materials they wanted to use, discovered some were underrated in the handbooks, and designed the Zero.

    When the Allied forces tried to reverse engineer the Zero, they discovered it was an impossible plane, it performed better than it was physically possible. But then, they used the old handbooks.

    I recall reading this in an old Air and Space Magazine, but no luck finding a link.

    Bonus airplane hack,the P-51.

    One, the wing.

    Wind tunnel tests showed that for certain shaped airfoils, laminar flow [stevens-tech.edu] could be maintained far back along the wing, resulting in much decreased drag. The Mustang has these wings, giving it less drag, higher speed and greater range. Of course, they had to be kept clean of bugs and debris.

    Two, the radiator.

    The radiator/oil cooler was positioned to add a little more thrust to the plane, cool air came in the front, removed heat from the oil, became hotter, and became a primitive jet engine.

  • During World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbour the Japanese were a bit annoyed that the US could attack the Japanese mainland but Japan couldn't reciprocate. It wasn't logistically possible to mount a traditional attack against the United States. Japan did know of the jet stream while America and its allies did not. The way they exploited it is a macabre but grade A hack.

    They started a cottage industry building balloons from rice paper and potato based glue. These 32 foot balloons were filled with lighter than air hydrogen gas and released. Inside the balloons were a series of aneroid barometer controlled switches which would fire off in series whenever the balloon fell below a certain altitude. The first N switches dropped ballast allowing the balloon to rise again and continue on down the jet stream. The last switch would drop incendary devices as well as ignire a demolition charge to destroy any evidence.

    Japan's intention was to start massive forest fires. Fortunately they didn't quite understand the climate on the west coast and were launched during the rainy season. Only a few people were ever harmed by these balloons.

    This is (as far as I know) not common knowledge. The American media agreed with the Military to suppress information about the balloons. After a minister's wife and five kids were killed by one of the balloons some information was released. They needed to avoid a mass panic however, they were worried that panic would result from fears of anthrax laden balloons raining down on US cities.
  • by Rabbins ( 70965 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:53AM (#1507086)
    This could be a damn urban legend, so maybe someone can help me... but I remember a story of a student at Harvard that for his Senior Research Project decided to do an experiment based on Pavlov's beahvioral conditioning.

    Essentially, for 2 months in the summer he got up early in the morning, donned a black and white shirt and walked over to the fields with a large bag of bird seed while blowing a whistle. Of course he was very well loved by the birds of Massachusetts. He stopped right before football season officially started.

    So on the opening game of the year, the referees get on the field, blow the whistle and 100's of birds descend down onto the field. The game is delayed for around 20 minutes just to get all of them off.

    Beautiful in its simplicity... "Wish I had thought of that"

    If it ever really happened.
  • On the HP ScanJet 4, the scanner would make different tones as it was scanning based on the speed and direction that the scan light was moving. Some engineer at HP then took this and released software (I think it came with the scanner) that would cause it to play music using the movement of the scanner to generate the notes.


  • I'd say that Starwar and ITS are among the top 10 hacks, not counting the numerous non-computer related hacks.
  • by Mithrandir ( 3459 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:55AM (#1507089) Homepage
    I'm not sure if I agree directly, but I think the whole Apollo program was a great hack. Just think of the memorable things 30 years later - Space Food Sticks, Tang and Velcro ....

    I had the fun of working with an ex-Apollo veteran for 3 years. He was working in the Simulator side. None of these lovely Onyx boxen for generating graphics - all mechanical star fields and control maintenance. Computing was barely even used for the control and monitoring.

    He worked on the simulator side of the Apollo 13 recovery. The story goes that he was clocking off shift on that day. The guy before him left the building through security, but he got turned around and told to go back to work. 48 hours later and he takes the first bit of sleep. Now I've done quite a few 24+ hr coding runs, but this still blows me away every time I think about it. Not only did these guys have to know the entire computing system, they also had to know most of the maths/physics they were simulating _and_ also had to be a half-decent mechanic too. There's not many of todays hackers that could claim that level of capabilities.

    The most interesting things you never hear about. I spent a lot of time travelling with him to do various things. The really great hacks of the entire Apollo program will never make general knowledge. I'm pleased that I've had a chance to hear about many of them first hand from someone who really was there.

  • Aviation as we know it today started as a hack. Two guys in a bike shop made something that could carry a man through the air.

    Aviation continued to be one giant hack for many years after that. For a time, no two airplaces were alike, because they were all built by different guys, in their barns.

    In Charles Lindberg's autobiography "We", he mentions how he used to fly around the US, and one day in the fall crashed in a farmers field, and broke his prop. He spent the winter living with that farmer, and bought a beam from his barn and carved another prop with his jack knife, and flew away in the spring. *THAT* is a hack.

  • by slim ( 1652 ) <john@hartnup . n et> on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:57AM (#1507095) Homepage
    Emulation never ceases to impress me, especially when the host is an unconventional platform, or the emulated system is obscure, or the emulated system is new enough to be considered "unemulatable".

    • MAME in general, for completeness, and for the insight involved in realising there was enough overlap for it to make sense to put so many systems into one executable.
    • Mame ported to a Kodak digital camera! Silly, and therefore a great hack.
    • xzx, since it was the first emulator I saw (running on a Sun Sparc), and I thought it was phenomenal.
    • That Spectrum emulator for PSX, written without official PSX dev tools.
    • UltraHLE, for being better than the real thing.

    Any others I've missed?
  • AOL's use of a buffer overrun to block MS clients from using their servers. They used what was at hand in a creative and unconventional way to get a job done. You may not agree with the job that was performed, but you have to admit that it was a sly hack the way AOL did it.
  • by Rabbins ( 70965 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @05:59AM (#1507100)
    I can't believe no one has suggested that yet (or maybe they have and I missed it).

    Despite all the myths, that most likely really did happen, and would have to go down as one of the greatest hacks of all time.
  • by um... Lucas ( 13147 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @06:01AM (#1507104) Journal
    Linus, on of the top 10 hackers of all time? I'm sure my emailbox is going to get crammed for saying this, but Linux is only Unix, which was already invented, cheapened with free source.

    Yes, it's a great OS.

    Yeah, it's pretty cool that it made source code widely available to people.

    But he didn't really create anything... Even the development model was already established before he did what he did.
  • I am too lazy to find references but I will include:
    - The first computer virus. Self-replicating code that goes memely from program to program. Or was it from disk to disk? Was it inspired by Core Wars or independent? It had to be very tight. It was not useful but...
    I second that RTM worm as well.
    - Von Neumann architecture, I mean stored program instead of hardcoded. The program is data.
    - The process (first in Algol, Pascal?) by which you program a minimal compiler in assembler, and, from then on, you code the compiler in the high level language until you have it full.

  • by pq ( 42856 ) <rfc2324&yahoo,com> on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @06:05AM (#1507109) Homepage
    Okay, this is late and will never float up to the +4 area, but I think this one's a neato:

    During WWII, they had these Lancaster bombers fly low (60 ft) at night, and launch a spinning cylindrical bomb towards the base of German dams in the Ruhr valley. Thse bombs would bounce on the water (like skipping stones - Tiddlywinks, anyone?), skip over the nets and anti-torpedo lines, and finally sink down to the foot of the dam before exploding.

    Ethical issues aside - we could argue the morality of busting dams to flood the Ruhr valley, but I won't - this is a supremely ingenious implementation of technology to get around an obstacle... I nominate the Dam Busters [valourandhorror.com] as one of the best hacks ever.

  • by um... Lucas ( 13147 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @06:06AM (#1507110) Journal
    You know, the device he built in WW2 that cracked enigma's encryption... Pretty much it was a mechanical computer... Built out of necessity, in a relatively short period of time. It did onething, but one thing good. That's got to be on the list somewhere, because if it weren't for that, we'd be living in a much darker world.
  • While I was reading the article, the printing press immediately jumped to mind, so I will add my vote for the printing press as the alltime greatest hack. After all, consider its longevity!
  • The really cool thing about Pathfinder was the hack they did to patch the statically linked operating system (vxWorks - yukk, they should have used RTEMS [rtems.com]) to fix it's priority inversion problem...on Mars!

    See here [time-rover.com] and here [microsoft.com]. What's really funny is that this problem was reported by somebody from Microsoft - problably the least Real Time aware company (after Sun and Oracle) on the planet.
  • by AJWM ( 19027 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @06:13AM (#1507123) Homepage
    You beat me to it.

    Although, like "the Apollo 11 landing", the "recovery of Apollo 13" is a bit too broad and general to, IMO, qualify as a hack. It comprised several hacks, to be sure (as did the whole Apollo project), but we should look at them separately perhaps.

    The single greatest hack of Apollo 13 was, I think, the kludging together of assorted baggies, spacesuit hoses, checklist covers and duct tape together with the (square) LiOH canisters from the CM to fit the (round) hole for the LM canisters.

    The single greatest hack of the Apollo project -- which made it possible at all -- was probably the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous mission profile itself. That was championed by a lone engineer in the face of a lot of opposition that wanted Earth Orbit Rendezvous (requiring two Saturn V launches) or Direct Ascent (requiring a Nova-class booster).
  • by Frater 219 ( 1455 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @06:19AM (#1507129) Journal
    Here are a few of what I think of as great hacks, in various different fields:
    • The Macintosh. Regardless of what you think of the current MacOS, it's incredibly impressive that the computing world was transformed by a 128KB machine that fits in a backpack. Desktop publishing emerged because of the Mac and the LaserWriter; the Mac also brought networking (in the form of AppleTalk) to the small office.
    • The RFCs and the Internet standards process. A social hack: formulating and documenting protocols out in the open instead of in back rooms under NDAs. Out of this hack emerged essentially all the protocols which run the Net.
    • The organ transplant. A medical/biological hack: The ability of surgeons to patch a running system is impressive in and of itself; the ability to patch a running system out of components from another, mostly-compatible, system, is simply amazing.
    • The GPL. A legal hack: The GPL is in one sense the "Intellectual Property" equivalent of Gödel's (First) Incompleteness Theorem: it turns copyright and licensing laws back on themselves in order to create restrictions upon their power, just as Gö turns mathematical logic back on itself to demonstrate its limits.
    • For that matter, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems themselves, for pretty obvious reasons. Mathematical hacks.
  • by pb ( 1020 )
    Sigh. 'Emacs' did, but not the Lisp interpreter. So if we have to make a distinction, I'm not talking about 'TECO Emacs', and it sucks that they had to have the same name...

    I quote, from GNU's Emacs FAQ:

    23: Where does the name "Emacs" come from?

    Emacs originally was an acronym for Editor MACroS. RMS says he "picked
    the name Emacs because `E' was not in use as an abbreviation on ITS at
    the time." The first Emacs was a set of macros written in 1976 at MIT by
    RMS for the editor TECO (Text Editor and COrrector, originally Tape
    Editor and COrrector) under ITS on a PDP-10. RMS had already extended
    TECO with a "real-time" full screen mode with reprogrammable keys. Emacs
    was started by Guy Steele as a project to unify the
    many divergent TECO command sets and key bindings at MIT, and completed
    by RMS.

    Many people have said that TECO code looks a lot like line noise. See
    alt.lang.teco if you are interested. Someone has written a TECO
    implementation in Emacs Lisp (to find it, see question 90); it would be
    an interesting project to run the original TECO Emacs inside of Emacs.

    pb Reply or e-mail rather than vaguely moderate [].
  • For those not familiar, Planck introduced his constant to resolve the "ultraviolet catastrophe", the fact that thermal radiation intensity drops off at high frequencies.

    Why is it a hack? Well, Planck had no conception of wave-particle duality, or quanta, or any of that stuff. He just knew his calculus, and that integration over discrete energy values, rather than a true continuum, would give the radiation curve like that observed. He just crunched the numbers to come up with the value that fit, and voila! It worked, so maybe it's right.

    When Einstein showed that he just happened to be right, it set off quantum mechanics, thus allowing us to figure out lasers, nuclear energy, and semiconductors.

    A truly righteous hack.

  • The guys that perpetrate these hacks are known as the Hackers on MIT campus. The MIT campus is full of little hacks as well. (ie: graffitti somehow painted in the underground tunnels underneath pipes and high voltage conduits--I looked at this closely and it just didn't appear possible that it was done without completely disconnecting a lot of stuff.) Anyway, I think the cop car on the dome hack was better than the R2D2 hack. I have a "MIT Culture" sweatshirt with that picture on it.

    Speaking of MIT Culture, if any of the 333rd are here, just wanted to say, I was at DTYD a couple years ago and you guys rock!

  • * Titanium, as any metal, expands when heated: the planes had to have 'seams' in the wings
    that were closed when the sheetmetal expanded: the SR-71 leaked fuel (120 octane fuel)
    while parked on the runway!

    Actually, it was a special jet fuel, incredibly thick. A friend (who used to drive U2s back in the '50s, and has a son who drove SR71s) describes the leaks thusly: "It forms a drop, and the drop sloowwwlllyyy droops down until it breaks off. Then it starts again".

    My nominations for the aerospace hacks: Apollo 13: building a CO2 scrubber from duct tape and report covers with the atsronaut's lives at stake is the epitomy of a hack. (The mission team assembled in a room with the goodies available in the spacecraft. They had to adapt the squarish Command module scrubber cartridge to the LM's round one.)
    For aircraft, I'll nominate the U2. Take a close look at a 3-view of the U2, espcially from the top. Repeat with the F104. Yup, the fastest, orneriest fighter of its age donated its fuselage to the U2. The Skunk works really knew how to build them well, and build them cheap.

  • Yeah but the problem with C|Net and much of the otherstream "mainstream digital analysis" sites are that they consistently ring hollow. Jesse Berst, for example.

    It's pretty much sensationalist writing informed by the "trend of the moment": Here's-10-Reasons-Why-Y2K-Should-Scare-The-Hell-Ou t-Of-You. Or, maybe: Here's-My-Dumb-Reasons-Why-DSL-Will-Fail.

    No, they're not out to "scare" people -- and I defy a slashdot reader to admit that he/she was actually "scared" by anything posted in C|Net -- but they're out to cash in on the hype -- and they're out to stir up the hype.

    It's like a kid on a playground who spots a fight and then starts goading one of the fighters -- "Your mama dresses like Flo from Alice, you trailer park piece of poop" -- knowing that his taunts will only make the fight worse than it is for the participants -- but much better than it was for the spectators.

    That's the big problem with C|Net -- you cats more than often not don't contribute analysis to the debate. You stir the flames, sit back, and when you're criticized -- you claim that the flames were already burning long before you got there.

    I don't buy your assertion that, hey, give us a break, we're just trying to make you laugh. That's bunk. If you wanna make me laugh, tell me a joke. But don't jump on the hype-wagon, push my buttons, and then claim you're just the messenger -- and look, dude, lighten up and don't kill the messenger.

    It's parasitic analysis, IMHO.
  • I hear greatest hack... I think of the balloon popping out of the middle of the football field during the Harvard-Yale game. But then I'm biased... I went to MIT

    As far as digital pranks, my best was done to a poor computer at Walmart. I wrote a 2-byte com program that was interrupt 13 (reboots the computer under DOS). I named it win.com and dir.com. I then edited the file with the dir reference(forgot which one it was... been a long time since I mucked with DOS) so that dir would run dir.com (don't forget to make sure it is in the path!) I always would giggle thinking of some poor guy trying to run windows and then when the machine rebooted trying to run dir to see what was up.
  • I think that one of the greatest hacks of all time.

    Is Einsteins General Relativity.

    Made by one man and describing
    how matter, energy, space and time interact.

    I also have a website [sunsite.auc.dk] with revolutionary technology.
    Here you can find many grate hacks.

  • Try reading it again. You need to understand what "bug1" and "bug2" are.

    Bug1 is "if I am compiling 'login', add a bug which enables Ken to login with a secret password at any time, whether or not he has an account"

    Bug2 is "if I am compiling 'cc', add bug1 and bug2"

    The trick is, once you've written these two bugs into cc, you compile your new cc, delete the bugs from the source code, and compile your clean source with your *hacked* cc, which silently and secretly passes those bugs along. Now, any copy of "login" built with this compiler, or built with any compiler built by this compiler, or any of its descendents down the line, will allow Ken Thompson access to your computer, and you'll never know about it because it's not in the source any more.

    The '\v' stuff was just to introduce you to the notion of altering a compiler to extend its ability to understand and respond to patterns, and how once you've done it once longhand, future builds can use the shortcuts you've taught it.

    Speaking of strange loops, I think a definite candidate for one of the century's most beautiful hacks is Godel's Incompleteness Theorem.

    I'd also have to give nods to Einstein's Relativity theories, and the recent proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, both of which I only rank below Godel *as hacks* because they don't have the same marvelous seems-obvious-once-you've-done-it-ness of Godel's feat.

    perl -e '$_="06fde129ae54c1b4c8152374c00";
    s/(.)/printf "%c",(10,32,65,67,69,72,
  • by G-Man ( 79561 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @06:35AM (#1507163)
    Actually, I thought it was built of plywood mainly because steel was a very precious commodity during the war. Either way, you're right, it was a very creative design.

    In the same vein, I nominate the Sherman "Hedgehog" Tanks of the Normandy invasion. Normandy is (or at least was) full of large hedgerows, or "Bocage". Whenever a tank rolled over one, it would expose the thin armor on its underbelly, and the Germans quickly learned to place anti-tank guns on the other side to dispatch them.

    After losing quite a few tanks, the legend goes that some Sergeant got the bright idea to cut up the steel beach obstacles (if you've seen "Saving Private Ryan", they're the ones shaped like children's jacks) and weld them to the front of the Shermans. These forks would lodge into the front of the hedgerow and the tank would bust on through going fast, straight, and level, with the much thicker front armor facing the enemy.

    So aside from the sheer ingenuity level, it has the added irony of using the German's own obstacles against them, enough to qualify as an all-time "hack" in my book.
  • That's where the intro about the beads is. I actually pulled it out when I was making my original submission just to verify the depth of the hack ;)
    "We hope you find fun and laughter in the new millenium" - Top half of fastfood gamepiece
  • The hacks are just buried further beneath all the other mundane garbage. Many times a great hack is simply something done to get a stuck project unstuck; if nobody ever stops to look back on it, nobody realizes how wonderful it was. Often, a hack is merely an amazing insight, applied at the right moment.

    You can find a beautiful and elegant hack just by opening a grandfather clock: the escape wheel and pallet.

    One of engineering's best hacks was the laying of the first cable for the bridge across Niagra Falls: the surveyor saw a kid flying a kite, so he gave the kid a dollar to snag his kite in some bushes on the other side of the falls. Then he used the kite string to pull a cord, and the cord to pull a rope, the rope to pull a cable, and the bridge was underway.

    One question I think needs answering at this point--what's the difference between a great hack, and a great invention? I ask this because something like the screw inside an Artesian well simply blows my mind with its simplicity, but in the intervening millenia it has become a standard device. If inventions count, I propose the wheel-and-axle and the use of interlocking gears as the two most significant hacks in history.


  • absolutely not.

    Linus has done nothing than further develop an existing model. Yes, he has done a good job, and thousands upon thousands of people have helped out or used Linux.

    1) Learn how to spell.

    2) Linux is not the end-all of OS's.

    3) If you ever were to call an OS a hack, look at Win98. You complain that it crashes all the time. Did you ever think that it is a miracle that it runs at all? Props to the Micro$oft engineers for constructing the Frankenstein of operating systems, and making it run.
  • The bad guys always seemed to lock them up in a room handily appointed with welding / cutting torches and an abundance of materials to create anything from armored vehicles to oxygen bottle missiles.

    I love it when a .plan comes together!
  • #1 ENIAC.
    I'm sorry, but you'll find absolutely NO larger hack! (And I'm not talking just size here, either.)

    #2 Linux
    Take one part Minix, one part frustation, add hundreds of thousands of lines of code from all over the place, cobbled together, and you get Linux. Definitely a hack if there ever was.

    #3 NetBSD/OpenBSD/FreeBSD
    Not to discount the BSDs in comparison to Linux, but they're not as big a hack. They all follow a fixed set of standards, but they've got bits and pieces of code from everywhere!

    #4 Sun Microsystems
    Yes, I'm nominating a company. Take a few gurus, some people with money, build a machine, capitalize on it's popularity, remove all gurus, and still remain popular through marketing. The ultimate business hack.

    #5 Windows 98
    Bite me, folks. It's a hack plain and simple. Start with MS-DOS. Put Windows 3.0 on top. Then add Windows 3.1 code. Then add Windows 3.11 code. Then add Windows 95 code, and a few million more lines of code, and you have Windows 98!

    #6 The Internet
    Vint Cerf doesn't remember the first time they made two computers talk to eachother. It was cobbled together. To this day, it's cobbled together and held together by bailing wire and duct tape. Let's hear it for the world's biggest hack!

    #7 godhatesfags.com
    The man is the ultimate literary and legal hack. He's been banned from practicing law multiple times. Hacks don't necessarily HAVE to involve computers; computers just help to expose them. ;)

    #8 slashdot.org
    C'mon, Rob. Don't bother denying it. slashdot is a cobbled together pile of code teetering on the edge of either brilliance or total system meltdown. Embrace it! Be proud of it! :)

    #9 Mandrake Linux
    Cheap Hacks'R'Us. Take existing distribution. "Extend" existing distribution. Put in other stuff. Relabel with new flashy logo and name. Sell for same price as competitor. Speaks for itself.

    #10 WinModems
    We can emulate old PCs on our dual pII-450's, why not emulate hardware, like UARTs and DSPs? Now *THAT* is a hack if I ever did see one!

    The opinions above are mine and mine and only mine and thievery of opinions or frags will be met with fierce resistance. Thank you drive through, offer not applicable in all areas, while supplies last, no purchase necessary, call 1-800-NOT-REAL or send SASE to NO SUCH CONTEST, RT 666 BOX 1, COUDERSPORT, PA, 16915, sorry we're all out of Pokemon.
  • Anyone remember that old Apple ][ program (came on a Beagle Bros disk), that would:

    Alternatively start and stop the 2 floppy disk drives, eventually decreasing the time before switching to the other drive.

    It sounded exactly like Chuga----Chuga----Chuga---Chuga---Chuga--Chuga--Ch uga--Chuga-Chuga-Chuga.

    The only thing it missed was the train whistle ;-)

    One of the funniest (and most useless) hacks around.

  • You know... the one Ulises made to beat the Trojans...

    That must be THE GREATEST HACK EVER, according to the article, because:

    • longevity: Everybody knows about it several thousand years later!
    • social and/or technological impact: Software troyan horses, anyone?
    • elegance: This is elegant as hell!
    • that not-easily definable quality of "I shoulda thought of that: Yeah, that's what the troyans must have thought the day after! :-)


  • The Twinkie is easily the number 1 hack of all time.

    You try taking:

    enriched flour (niacin, iron (ferrous sulfate), thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin), water, sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable and/or animal shortening (contains one or more of: canola oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, beef fat), eggs, and dextrose, and also containing no more than 2% of modified food starch, whey, leavenings (sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, monocalcium phosphate), salt, starch, yellow corn flour, corn syrup solids, mono and diglycerides, dextrin, calcium caseinate, sodium stearoyl lactylate, cellulose gum, polysorbate 60, wheat gluten, lecithin, flavors (artificial, natural), artifical colors (yellow 5, red 40), caramel color, preservatives (sorbic acid)

    and come up with something better. Can't be done.

    Twinkies also stand up to the tests of science. Check out this site for more information on that: Twinkies Project [twinkiesproject.com].

  • ...Or does a hack imply a hacker?

    As neat as the amino acid thing was (I'd include the wonderful replication ability of the ribonucleic acids in with that one), it seems that it just sorta...happened. A unique combination of the right energies with the right raw materials, thrown together by random chance. A hack without a hacker.

    Unless you're of the religious persuasion, in which case the Creator(s) would be the ultimate hacker(s).

  • by Anonymous Coward
    My favorite detail of this story is about how they tracked the campus police for weeks to see if they could determine their movements. Eventually, they found that there was a time in the middle of the night when all of the campus police left campus on a break. Things go a lot better when there is nobody around to catch you.
  • I was there. I read the post. *most* of us recognized it as clever, and immediately began speculation about how it was done.

    However, a good number taken in, and they were hysterical. Remember, this was during the end-game of the cold war (though most of us still thought it was the height of the coldwar). The gullible folks (was it Stalin or Lenin that called them "useful idiots") that bought it hook, line, and sinker, decried it has a horrible thing, as it had been a great step forward for peace.

    This was also during the time that you could read the *entire* newsfeed in under two hours--all 30 or 40 groups.
  • You can't tell me that say Unix security hasn't increased in the past 20 years can you?

    I don't think it has. Most security holes are caused by buffer overflows. The dominant language for Unix (and other) platforms is still a language that easily allows for buffer overflows.

    Nothing has changed to prevent this.

    -- Abigail

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @07:19AM (#1507224) Homepage Journal
    Having spent a few years at MIT, I'd like to put in a word for the ethical requirement.

    A great hack should be a thing of wonder and beauty, something only somebody with the moral equivalent of a tin ear could fail to appreciate. It needs to be perfect in every way -- no detail is so small that it can be overlooked, down to the donuts and styrofoam cups in the police cruiser. Contemplating a great hack makes you feel happy to be alive and sentient. True hacks are profoundly pro-social acts, a way to use your gifts to make the world a better place.

    Pranks that damage, deface or defame cannot rise to that standard of excellence. They're the moral equivalent of physical bullying -- ugly, and funny only to the hopelessly dull or morbidly insecure.

    Every smart kid needs to go to a place where being smart doesn't define him (like MIT or CalTech or others). Such places (and I'm sure many others) drive home the truth of what the Wizard of Oz tells the Scarecrow, "Anyone can have a brain -- that's a very mediocre commodity." Hacking isn't about asserting you're intellectual superiority, it's about combining originality and hard work.

  • A friend of mine made a file system out of ICMP packets - put data in ping packets and bounced it out, using lag as a storage medium. hehe. was neat. he could store a few k out there.
  • I think Lizzy Borden should get all of the top ten slots for her hacks. They are among the most infamous hacks of all time.
    ------------------------------------------------ ----------
  • The DeHaviland Mosquito was first designed nearly two years before World War II, when metal was still in plentiful supply. It was also the fastest aircraft of World War II, with the exception of some (but not all) jet aircraft.

    The Mosquito's top speed was considerably greater than that of any other propellor-powered aircraft of the time, with early models reaching speeds around 500 mph, or higher.

  • by um... Lucas ( 13147 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @07:46AM (#1507259) Journal
    Well then, hey, why don't we put Bill Gates on the list of greatest hackers? :)

    I mean, he hasn't ever invented anything, just integrated and re-sold other peoples work. That in my mind, is not a hacker, sorry... Bill Gates is a great businessman (his ethics may be a little or a lot off, but he's got the worlds most valuable company).

    I would probably put Linus more in that category than in the "hacker" category. If in 5 or 10 years, all of the predictions he's made and every other Linux advocate has made come true, then wow! he did something amazing. But I think we're way too much in the early stages of this phenomenon to gauge it's long term-effects.
  • The M16 rifle is the very definition of a hack in hardware. It is elegant, and it gets the job done extremely well, even under the most adverse conditions.

    The early history of Eugene Stoner's AR-15/M-16 was riddled with problems. Close manufacturing tolerances and adverse field conditions (think Viet Nam) caused jams at the worst possible moments.

    These problems weren't really solved until the introduction of the M-16A1 with its kludgy "forward assist" (and a switch to less corrosive propellants).

    Now Mikhail Kalashnikov's AK-47: that is a hackerly weapon. Five moving parts. Stamped parts instead of milled/machined components. Stranded steel wire instead of springs. Simple to operate and maintain. Fault-tolerant. A village blacksmith can gin up a new bolt carrier/gas piston assembly if need be. It's the one weapon I'd want with me if I ever had to travel back through time.

    Kalashnikov picked some of the best features of three contemporary designs (Mp-44, M1 Garand, SKS) and hacked together a design that's still in production 52 years later.

  • I must disagree.

    Surely a simple lobotomy would have sufficed? In fact it would doubtless have a more elegant solution, since the whole Neo-rebellion thing could have been avoided.

    Using humans to process chemical energy into electrical, despite the laws of physics: now that was a hack!

  • by hanway ( 28844 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @07:53AM (#1507271) Homepage
    I'll stick to computer-related hacks, otherwise the list is too broad. (How could a trojan horse program compete with The Trojan Horse?) Bearing that in mind, here are a few hacks that may be relatively minor but impressed me nonetheless:

    • The program that played music (usually Daisy) via RFI picked up by a nearby AM radio. I first encountered an 8080 version of it, but it may go back further than that.

    • The ZIL (or whatever it was called) engine that ran Zork and all the other Infocom games on every platform known to man in the early-mid 80's was a nice hack. Plus, it inspired some minor hacks in the form of some track loaders we used so that we could buy the game in one format (usually something oddball like Tandy 2000) and transfer the game data to another format.

    • Emulators are interesting in that it's impressive that they work at all, and amazing when they work well. I'd give the most credit to Magic Sac, which was, I think, the first "hostile port" of the MacOS to another platform (Atari ST); to UAE for doing the "impossible" by emulating the Amiga; and to MAME for the sheer scope of it.

    • PARNET was a "network" for Amigas that ran over the parallel port and actually worked well enough to be useful.

    • The Amiga hardware included a number of clever hacks and inspired still more: Hold-And-Modify mode graphics; copper-list-dependent graphics modes (SHAM etc.); overscanned desktops; parallel floppy duplicators (that actually "broadcast" the data to more than one drive at once); scan doublers/flicker fixers; the A2024 monitor; lack of cut-and-paste worked around by OCR'ing the frame buffer...
    One thread that runs through most if not all of these hacks is that they make a computer work in some way that was never intended by the original designers. That, to me, is a key ingredient that distinguishes a hack from a non-hack.
  • by King Babar ( 19862 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @07:54AM (#1507274) Homepage

    Yes, this is slighly off-topic, but Slashdot won't let me start a new main thread, and this is a space-related hack.

    Once upon the time, the military decided it would be really great to know exactly where you were anywhere in the world, say by just pressing a button on a hand-held unit. The geeks in the backroom found out a way to do this, using satellites (this alone was quite a hack, actually...) Now, lo and behold, we can all use GPS to find out exactly where we are.

    Well, not exactly. The military realized it would not be a great idea to let just anybody have such nice positioning information. It would suck if Saddam Hussein knew exactly where all his tanks were during a battle, too. So the GPS system also has a built-in method to screw up the signal to a greater or lesser extent depending on who you are and whether or not we're fighting a war.

    Now comes the real hack: a bunch of geeky geoscientists (or is that redundant?) decided that they could track tectonic plate movements using GPS...if only they could obtain more accuracy than the generals would be comfortable with. So what they did was design a method that all but ignored the "for the public" tracking information you could get from the GPS system, and instead focused on analyzing the inevitable phase distortions of the carrier frequency itself to achieve better than 1 cm location accuracy, after lots of post-processing. A crude analogy here would be to come up with a system that would do something useful with TCP/IP packets by ignoring the "useful" contents of the packets themselves, but concentrating on the quirky bits (like the TCP finger-printing people) or the weird statistics of packet arrival times.

    None of this is exactly what the military had in mind, but this is (so far) only useful for surveying applications, an most notably the study and identification of known and unknown faults in tectoncially active regions of the world. You can look at some of the more recent data at this JPL site put together by Michael Heflin. [nasa.gov] The next time somebody asks you how we know that plate tectonics really works, just send them here. :-)

  • Oops. I usually preview, honestly I do.

    I meant, of course: Creating a process by which the most efficient method of converting chemical into electrical energy involves the use of humans, despite the laws of physics: now that was a hack!

  • by helleman ( 62840 ) on Wednesday November 24, 1999 @08:06AM (#1507287) Homepage
    Taking something and making it more than it was. Yet another definition of hacking.

    Here's a sweet example of that. Color TV.

    TV seems pretty mundane and simple... till you start looking into it's origins.

    Here's a cool link that goes into the history of color TV.

    Imagine being tasked with the job of creating color TV - and then being told... oh ya... it has to work with the thousands of black and white TV's that are out there too. Doh!

    Very cool hack.

    Check it out.

    History of Color TV [novia.net]

    Man - today we are spoiled. Super powerful processors that crunch the heck out of digital data. Imagine if we could redesign color TV today? Oh wait a sec - isn't that what HDTV is all about? Ah, forget it. Too much red tape bs.

  • If you must have a civilian flightsim, you've no business citing MS Flight Simulator when 'X-Plane' exists. The latter uses blade element modelling to simulate all airplanes by actually simulating them- no lookup tables in this one- on a home computer! Ten years ago (never mind twenty) this was unimaginable.
    On the other hand, if you cite MS Flight Simulator you should really be citing the source it came from- SubLogic A2-FS1. At least that's how I knew it, I understand it was a crossplatform product. A graphical flight simulator on an Apple ][ was truly a great hack, and my understanding is that MS flight simulator began with a purchasing of the SubLogic product. Regardless, Bruce Artwick was there first. (apologies if I've got any facts wrong)
  • Apollo 13 as a top 10 hack? Given the state of the technology at the time, getting there was amazing. Getting back when things went sour was incredible.
    Abso-fraggin-lutely. I remember seeing the scene in the Apollo 13 movie where the engineers are trying to assemble a C02 scrubber from the spare parts that would be available on the ship, and thinking to myself "I know these guys!
  • I always thought that the Apple lowercase hack was pretty brilliant.

    The early computers didn't do much, and they were all more of a 'hack' for hackers than a productivity tool.

    The Apple ][+ default text display was 40X24 and there was NO LOWERCASE. You had to buy a special aftermarket PROM to support display of lowercase characters. Moreover, the *&%!# SHIFT KEY DIDN'T WORK ON LETTERS! So... some wordprocessing companies came up with the brilliant idea of wiring the paddle button from the connector to the shift key and using the 'paddle button' as a shift key!

    Imagine trying to sell a computer today that didn't have lowercase!

  • although the bouncing thing was extremely neat, it wasn't exactly original. in fact, the soviets used it quite a lot -- they just never got anything to work afterwards! (which I suppose means that the NASA version must have been different, at least. cooperation yields many dubious benefits)

    you should see some of the mars rovers they've got now -- very sweet, innovative hardware (the one I worked on was actually bought from russia) and software that will make them able to do actual WORK once we send em there.

  • (We're talking about this post [slashdot.org] in case your threshold is set too high for the Parent link to work. (This is called a Bug , Rob).)

    Well, 60% of your heat is lost through your head, so they say (which is why you must wear a hat in winter boys!). A lobotomised brain would be an less active brain and thus a less prolific producer of heat energy, and those poor malevolent cyber-intelligences would be down on their quotas and have hell to pay.

    Of course, The Matrix is a fictional work and so the multi-user VR system described therein is thus not qualified to be regarded as one of the greates hacks of all time. However, interestingly, if it should turn out that The Matrix is not a work of fiction - but, say, a 1st wake-up call from Neo and crew - then all the other hacks described here become fictional works.

    Makes you think, doesn't it?

    Or not.

    Regards, Ralph.

  • It was also the fastest aircraft of World War II, with the exception of some (but not all) jet aircraft.

    Uh, no. The Mosquito was quite a nice plane, but even the fastest one -- the prototype -- had a top speed of 429 MPH. This could be exceeded by quite a number of piston-engined fighters on both sides. It was able to make quick raids, however, and in the absence of extremely quick reactions by air defense, it could escape most of the time. (Note that its top speed *is* higher than that of the modern jet-powered A-10 Warthog tank destroyer...)

    It was faster than the in-service fighters, such as the Spitfire Mark I and the BF-109D, that were in service when the Mosquito took its first flight. That may be how this whole myth started.

    The fastest propeller-driven aircraft of the war was probably the Dornier Do335 [sh.cvut.cz], which had a reported top speed of 475 MPH. This unusual plane had a propellor at the front and the back, thus minimizing drag relative to wing-mounted engines like the Mosquito or twin-boom aircraft like the P-38. The Me-262, a jet plane, had a top speed of 540 MPH.

    The Mosquito's top speed was considerably greater than that of any other propellor-powered aircraft of the time, with early models reaching speeds around 500 mph, or higher.

    Last I saw, the world speed record for propellor aircraft was just under 500 MPH, set by a heavily modified P-51.

    (All speed ratings based on level flight, dive speeds could be considerably greater.)

    Another relevant site is here [accessweb.com]

The relative importance of files depends on their cost in terms of the human effort needed to regenerate them. -- T.A. Dolotta