The 7 Best MIT Pranks and Hacks

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the premier research universities for science and engineering. But even MIT students like to have some fun, and with the technical training and the free time that college students have, they come up with some pretty impressive pranks.

Over the years, the campus has played host to elaborate pranks or “hacks.” In fact, the term “hack” appears to have originated in these hallowed halls. These hacks are not about breaking into computer systems and releasing information to embarrass people they don’t like the way Anonymous does. The term originally meant elaborate, creative pranks like the kind described in this article.

R2-D2 Dome

R2_D2 Dome

The Great Dome, on top of MIT’s Building 10, is one of the campus’s most recognized archituectual features and a popular target for hacks. On May 17, 1999, two days before the release of “The Phantom Menace” and the first day of final exams, students and faculty discovered that the Great Dome had been transformed into R2-D2 overnight.

The Doctor Visits MIT


“Doctor Who” fans will love this one. On August 25, 2010, the TARDIS, the time machine that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, appeared on one of the campus’s buildings, with the banner “The Doctor 1, Harvard 0,” a dig at MIT’s Ivy League rival. A few days later, the TARDIS appeared on the Great Dome. The Doctor also made visits to Stanford, Caltech, and UC Berkeley, which shows that nerdy students at top science and engineering schools apparently share the same sense of humor.

Police Car on the Great Dome

MIT police car on the Great Dome

If you’re sick of seeing hacks related to the Great Dome, too bad! One of the funniest and best known pranks was getting a replica of an MIT police car up on top of the dome. The hack was painstakingly assembled in May 1994 out of the parts of a Chevrolet Cavalier. They even placed a dummy Campus Police officer inside, complete with a toy gun and a box of doughnuts.

Clock Tower Tribute to Steve Jobs

MIT hackers mourned the loss of Steve Jobs by placing an Apple logo in MIT’s clock tower as well as in Lobby 7.

Nyan Cat

Nyan Cat at MIT

On September 6, 2011, everyone’s favorite 8-bit Pop-Tart Cat, Nyan Cat appeared on the wall of Lobby 7, complete with a rainbow trail. No, I can’t get that song out of my head either.

Wikipedia Tags

MIT Wikipedia tag prank

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Wikipedia, MIT hackers placed tags like the one you see above poking fun at the Institute’s use of jargon all over campus. Who knew that students at a major technology school spend so much time on the Internet?

The Harvard Balloon Hack

At MIT, even the frat boys are huge nerds. During the Harvard-Yale football game of 1982, something strange happened. A balloon with “MIT” written all over it suddenly popped out of the ground at the 40-yard line, grew, and then burst. The prank was pulled by members of MIT’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, who over several pre-dawn visits planted the device, which used freon gas to inflate the balloon and was powered by a vacuum cleaner motor.  The way they executed this hack shows how harmless MIT hackers attempt to make their pranks. They thoughtfully attached a note saying the device was not dangerous, and timed the device to go off when it wouldn’t interrupt the actual game. (MIT hackers go out of their way to make things easy for other people. They often leave complete disassembly instructions with their projects for those who have to remove them.) The hack was so successful that many observers quipped, as did the Boston Globe, that MIT was the real winner of the game.

If you want to see more, check out the Interesting Hacks To Fascinate People page. Don’t miss our list of Google Easter eggs, one of which also references an MIT prank, and MIT’s hacked mugs.