The Day MIT Hacked Harvard-Yale
Thirty years ago this month, the nerds won The Game.
To America’s blue bloods, the annual Harvard-Yale matchup is a sacred event. Hell, President John F. Kennedy once said that the rush his job produced was “like playing Yale every Saturday.” If you’re headed to Harvard Stadium for the 129th edition of The Game this weekend, enjoy the festivities. But please take a moment to taste the glorious nerds of MIT. Thirty years ago, they pulled off the greatest prank in the history of sports.
During the second quarter of the Harvard-Yale football game on November 20, 1982, a big black balloon with “MIT” written all over it suddenly emerged from the Harvard Stadium field. “The two teams were lined up when suddenly our attention shifted toward the sideline,” remembers MIT Museum science and technology curator Deborah Douglas, who was there. “That’s when we saw it. Everyone was trying to make out what was written on the balloon. Some of the Harvard police seemed to draw their guns. And then suddenly it exploded.
The field was quickly repaired, and Harvard went on to rout Yale, 45-7. But in the stands, the focus remained on the balloon. “There was quite a stir,” says Douglas. “Everyone was talking about it.” CBS’s Brent Musburger mistakenly announced on television that a bomb had floated down from the stands and exploded, leaving a three-foot crater. “It was one of the most unbelievable things I’ve ever seen,” WBZ-TV anchorman Bob Lobel told Harvard magazine’s Craig Lambert in 1990. “It had to be the greatest college prank of all time.”
Delta Kappa Epsilon, the fraternity responsible for the elaborate stunt, later explained itself at a press conference. (During the briefing, one of the plan’s masterminds was drinking a Budweiser.) The balloon, a DKE brother explained, was filled with a refrigerant. “It was just Freon,” he said, charmingly presupposing the viewing audience knew what that was. “It’s just what you’d get in a refrigerator. It’s harmless and it’s escaping. It’s inert gas.”
This was a serious operation, with blueprints and everything. DKE even managed to avoid the Harvard Stadium guards. “Security patterns were established every evening,” DKE chapter president Bruce Sohn deadpanned.
The hack was conceived in 1978, after Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity brothers buried plastic tubing that would ooze yellow paint spelling “MIT” in Harvard’s field. When groundskeepers discovered and disabled the tubing, the would-be hackers revised their plan. They designed and built the balloon apparatus in 1978 and ’79 but graduated without deploying it. In 1982 their successors at the fraternity “found out about it,” says David Husak ’84, who helped with the balloon hack. The brothers installed the balloon apparatus during [eight] predawn trips to Harvard Stadium. “About 20 guys participated,” Husak remembers. “We’d go in at 2:00 a.m., with camo paint on and lookouts in the [stadium] towers.” An electrical-engineering major, Husak was responsible for the wiring. “Some of that wiring is probably still there” he says, laughing.
“I found the irrigation control board and wired [the device] into an empty circuit breaker,” he says. But on game day, the balloon didn’t deploy. A Deke talked his way past a Harvard policeman, got into the electrical room, and pulled every circuit breaker. One set off the device, and the rest is history.
Amazingly (but unsurprisingly, considering the parties involved) the gag went off without a hitch. “The hardest part of the whole project was trying to scalp tickets to get into the game,” Sohn told the Associated Press. (Sadly, the future renewable energy mogul’s current resume doesn’t include the prank.)
In today’s world, such an intricate, covert plot might result in criminal charges. And the sight of that massive black balloon—it looked like a Super Mario Bros. bomb—would probably cause panic, or at the very least, create a public relations disaster for MIT. But back then, it was celebrated. It even ended up in Musburger’s New Year’s Day college football special.
“Well, free-wheeling minds like these developed the heat-seeking missile, polyester, computers, the neutron bomb and other hallmarks of modern civilization,” Sports Illustrated wrote at the time. “Harvard may have won The Game, but hail to thee, MIT.”