A Brief History of Hacking from the 1960s to 1990s


Telephone switchboard 1880s. Source: Illinois Bell. Golden Anniversary

The very first hack came in 1878 when a group of teenage boys, hired to run the Bell switchboards, would disconnect or misdirect calls.


1960s

When hacking first started it was not thought of as that serious. The hackers were not even known as hackers but as practical jokers. The very first hack came in 1878 when the phone company, Bell Telephone, was started. A group of teenage boys, hired to run the switchboards, would disconnect or misdirect calls.

Photo of Unix creators Ken Thompson (left) and Dennis Ritchie (right) / Wikimedia Commons

The first authentic computer hackers came in the 1960s. During those times, computers were mainframes, locked away in temperature controlled, glassed in areas. It cost a lot of money to run these machines, so programmers had limited access to them. The smarter students, usually MIT students, had an insatiable curiosity about how things worked. So, the smartest ones created what they called “hacks”, programming shortcuts, to complete computing tasks more quickly. In some cases the shortcuts were better than the original program. One of the hacks that was created in the 60s, 1969 to be exact, was created to act as an open set of rules to run machines on the computer frontier. It was created by two employees from the Bell Lab’s think tank. The two employees were Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson and the “hack” was called UNIX.

1970s

In the 1970s, the world was primed and ready for hackers. For hackers, it was all about exploring and figuring out how the wired world worked. This is the year that hacking went from being a practical joke to serious business.

John Draper at Maker Faire Berlin, 2015 / Photo by Sebaso, Wikimedia Commons

The first major hacking came in 1971, by a Vietnam vet named John Draper. He figured out a way to make free phone calls. This was later called “Phreaking”. Abbie Hoffman followed John Drapers lead with “The Youth International Party Line” newsletter. However, the only thing missing from the hacking world was a meeting area. So, in 1978 two guys from Chicago, Randy Seuss and Ward Christiansen, created the first personal computer bulletin board system. This system is still in operation even today.

1980s-1990s

In the 1980s, hacking reached the peak of seriousness. By 1980, there was over a total of one million units being used in the U.S. By 1983, there were over 10 million units. By 1986, there were over 30 million. So, as you can see computer use increased drastically during the 80s.

The reason for this drastic increase in computer use was because of IBM. In, 1981 IBM announced “personal computers. It was stand alone machine, fully loaded with a CPU, software, memory, utilities, storage, etc. You could go anywhere and do anything on these computers. In 1983, a movie called War Games came out. This was the first movie to show the inner workings of hackers. For audiences nationwide this movie served as a warning. The territory was changing. More people were moving into the online world. ARPANET was changing into the Internet and popularity of bulletin board systems were beginning to take off.

Timothy Winslow is a former member of a teen computer hacking group that operated out of Milwaukee in the 1980s.

In Milwaukee a group of hackers called 414 broke into systems at institutions ranging from the Los Alamos Laboratories to Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Then the cops shut them down. The great rivalry started between two groups called LOD and MOD. This rivalry was called “The Great Hacker War”. A man who called himself Lex Luthor founded the Legion of Doom. It was named after a Saturday morning cartoon. The LOD had a reputation of attracting the best of the best, until one of their brightest members, Phiber Optik, feuded with Legion of Doomer, Erik Bloodaxe and got kicked out of the clubhouse. He and some of his friends then formed a rival group called, the Masters of Deception. Starting in 1990, LOD and MOD were involved in online warfare for almost two years. They were jamming phone lines, monitoring calls and trespassing in each other’s private computers. Things got so bad that the Fed’s stepped in to put a stop to it. Phiber and his friends were then sent to jail. This is what put an end to the era.


Originally published by University of Florida, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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