September 14, 2018

Credit: (Keith Thomas/Wikicommons)

What was the world’s first telecommunications hack? Some sort of electronic banking theft in the 80s? Perhaps it was the “phone phreaks” of the 1960s, who used tricks to make calls for free? Or the scientific hooligans who hacked Marconi’s wireless? Well, according to Tom Standage, Deputy Editor of The Economist, you have to go back even further than that. To 19th-century France, and a new technology called the mechanical telegraph.

Three Takeaways:

  • France’s mechanical telegraph system was the first of its kind in the world. It consisted of a series of towers, each with moveable wooden arms at the top. The configurations of the wooden arms represented numbers and letters, and operators in the towers would use telescopes to see and repeat the specific configurations. That way, government information could travel through the network at a speed far faster than a horse and carriage.
  • The Blanc brothers, who traded government bonds, exploited the mechanical telegraph for their own use. They bribed one of the operators to insert data that seemed like a mistake, but was actually secret code to alert them to how the Paris bond market was doing… days before anyone else in more remote regions of France knew.
  • Standage believes that this hack actually has lots of lessons to teach us today. Namely, that humans are usually the weakest link in any security system. The Blanc brothers didn’t hack the mechanical telegraph using huge amounts of technical know how; they just bribed one of the workers.

More Reading:

Tom Standage, hacking, history, Sci and Tech

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