Cyber Threats History: The Beginning (1960s)

In the early years of the 21st century the word "hacker" has become associated with people lurking into dark rooms and anonymously terrorizing cyberspace. But hacking and phreaking have been around since the 1960s when computers were true behemoths housed in restricted laboratories accessible only to a few geeks. Back in those days it was impossible for any teenager to buy a computer and only accredited professionals were allowed the privilege of programming these powerful machines.

The original hackers were only students, computer programmers and systems designers, adherent of a new subculture that originally emerged in the 1960s around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC). The members of this model train group "hacked" their electric trains, tracks, and switches to make them perform faster and differently. A hack was simply an elegant or inspired solution to any given problem.

Later, a few of the members of the TMRC transfer their curiosity and rigging skills to the new mainframe computing systems being studied and developed on campus. At this time, MIT employed some nerds to do some artificial intelligence and computer research. These guys actually created the models for the machine you are working on right now and were truly the first programmers and engineers in the field of IT.

This new Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, with its huge mainframe computers, became the staging ground for the first computer hackers emerging at MIT. At first, "hacker" was a positive term for a person with a mastery of computers who could push programs and systems beyond what they were originally designed to do. For these early pioneers, a hack was a feat of programming prowess and such activities were greatly admired as they combined expert knowledge with a creative instinct.

These early computer hackers were programming enthusiasts, experts primarily interested in modifying programs to optimize their performance, customize them for specific applications, or just for the fun of learning how things worked. Very often, the shortcuts and modifications produced by these hackers were even more elegant than the original programs they replaced or circumvented. In fact, the most elegant—and enduring—hack from this period is the UNIX operating system, developed in the late 1960s by Dennis Ritchie and Keith Thompson of Bell Labs.  

Historical landmarks:


Lieutenant Grace Murray Hopper discovers a moth trapped between relays in a Navy computer, the Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator. She calls it a "bug," and the operators affixed the moth to the computer log, with the entry: "First actual case of bug being found". Later, Grace Hopper put out the word that they had "debugged" the machine, thus introducing the term "debugging a computer program".  



Norbert Wiener published "Cybernetics," a major influence on later research into artificial intelligence and coined the term "cybernetics" from the Greek word meaning to "steer" or "navigate"   Norbert Wiener  


Hungarian-American scientist John von Neumann formulates the theory of self-replicating programs, providing the theoretical basis for computers that hold information in their "memory."
John von Neumann  


IBM shipped its first electronic computer, the 701. During three years of production, IBM sold 19 machines to research laboratories, aircraft companies, and the federal government.
    IBM 701


In November, the Bell System Technical Journal published an article describing the R1 signaling system in use at the time and the process used for routing telephone calls over trunk lines. This was the first step in a very serious mistake but the information could not be used, as the frequencies used for the Multi-Frequency, or "MF", tones were not published in this article.


MIT researchers built the TX-0, the first general-purpose, programmable computer built with transistors. For easy replacement, designers placed each transistor circuit inside a "bottle," similar to a vacuum tube.
MIT TX-0  


The USSR launches Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite. In response, the United States forms the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) within the Department of Defense (DoD) to establish US lead in science and technology applicable to the military.

In the late 1950s, AT&T began switching its telephone networks with the implementation of fully automatic switches that used specific frequency tones to communicate between them. One of these internal-use tones was a tone of 2600 Hz which caused a telephone switch to think the call was over, leaving an open carrier line which could be exploited to provide free long-distance and international calls.

Around 1957, Josef Engressia, a blind seven-year-old child with perfect pitch and an emotional fixation on telephones, accidentally discovered that whistling at certain frequencies could activate phone switches. Josef enjoyed the phone system and being a curious child, he called recorded messages all over the world, because it was free, and is was a good past time.

One day, he was listening to a message and whistling. When he hit a certain tone, the message clicked off. Joe fooled around with other numbers and the same pitch, and found he could switch off any recorded message. Unaware of what he had done, Josef called the phone company and wanted to know why this happened. He didn't understand the explanation given but soon after he learned to whistle the 2600 Hz pitch that interrupted long-distance telephone calls and allowed him to place a free long-distance call to anywhere in the world.


IBM´s 7000 series mainframes were the company´s first transistorized computers. At the top of the line of computers - all of which emerged significantly faster and more dependable than vacuum tube machines - sat the 7030, also known as the "Stretch".
  IBM Stretch  


In November, Bell's previous mistake was completed when another article titled "Signaling Systems for Control of Telephone Switching" was published, this time containing the frequencies used for the digits that were used for the actual routing codes. Now, with these two precious bits of information, the phone system was at the disposal of anyone with a cursory knowledge of electronics. Once the company realized what they had done, it was too late and the information had already been made public. The error was now irreversible; phreaks learned the MF, and began using everything from their mouths to pipe organs to phreak calls.

AT&T introduces its Dataphone, the first commercial modem, specifically for converting digital computer data to analog signals for transmission across its long distance network.

The term "hacker" is used by MIT train enthusiasts who hacked their train sets to change how they work. Later, these same enthusiasts emerge as the first computer hackers.

The word "cyborg" is coined by Manfred Clynes.


Programmers develop the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), a simple computer language that allows machines produced by different manufacturers to exchange data.  

ARPA launches Project MAC (the Project on Mathematics and Computation, also known as Multiple Access Computer, Machine Aided Cognitions, or Man and Computer).  


AT&T begins monitoring telephone calls in as effort to discover the identities of "phone freaks," or "phreakers," who use tone generators (known as blue boxes) to make free phone calls.

Online transaction processing made its debut in IBM´s SABRE reservation system, set up for American Airlines. Using telephone lines, SABRE linked 2,000 terminals in 65 cities to a pair of IBM 7090 computers, delivering data on any flight in less than three seconds.  


William D. Mathews from MIT found a flaw in a Multics CTSS running on an IBM 7094 that disclosed the contents of the password file and it is probably the first reported vulnerability in a computer system.  


John T. Draper, a retired air force technician, was driving around to test a pirate radio transmitter he had built, when he broadcasted a telephone number to listeners as feedback to measure his station's reception.

John Draper

A callback from a "Denny" resulted in a meeting with a group of phone freaks, most of them blind. Interested in his electronic skills, they wanted him to build a multifrequency tone generator to gain easier entry into the AT&T system, which was controlled by tones. One the blind boys was Josef Engressia who had already identified the exact frequencies. They informed him that a toy whistle, included as a gift in the boxes of Cap'n Crunch breakfast cereal, generated a 2600 Hz tone when one of the whistle's two holes was covered.

Cap'n Crunch Whistle

This was the tone used by AT&T long lines to disconnect one end of the trunk, allowing the still connected side to enter an operator mode. Experimenting with this whistle inspired Draper to build electronic devices capable of reproducing other tones used by the phone company.

Blue Box

It was the birth of the worldwide famous blue boxes and of Captain Crunch, the pioneer phreaker nicknamed after a plastic whistle.

Programmers at AT&T's Bell Laboratories develop the UNIX operating system, the first multi-tasking operating system.

ARPA awarded the ARPANET contract to BBN Technologies. The company selected a Honeywell DDP-516 computer configured with 24 kB of expandable core memory as the base on which they would build the switch. The physical network linked four nodes: University of California at Los Angeles, SRI (in Stanford), University of California at Santa Barbara, and University of Utah. These nodes were wired together via 50 kbps circuits creating an early network used by government research groups and universities, and the forerunner of the Internet.


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