Preface And Disclaimer

OK, I should start by saying that, contrary to the title, I Am Not A Hacker. Well, just this one time, long, long, ago, on a computer that doesn't even exist any more. And when it did exist, it had about as much computing power as your average $5 pocket calculator.

It's just that sometimes, when I become philosophical, I wonder what would have happened if...

Anyway, on with the story. It's been close to 30 years now, so forgive me if some details are a little vague (some names have been changed ...). But let me assure you, the story is 100% true - this is not fiction - I don't have that much imagination.


Background - The Computer, and the Players

The Computer was an IBM 1800, a normally used process controller for laboratories and such, for control of laboratory equipment. It was then being used as a terminal server, controlling maybe a dozen teletypes, which were scattered around campus, and were used in various student labs and classrooms for Computing.

We were Student Assistants ("SAs"). There were maybe 6 adults, pitted against 3 students. Not even in numbers, but we were more than a match for the adults.

The Adults:

  • Computer Center Director and Instructor, Harris (a pretty kewl guy but an adult).
  • Computer Administrator, Harry.
  • Computer Operator and Manager, Tom.
  • Maybe 2 or 3 keypunch (data entry) operators.

The Students:

  • Newest member of the group, Chuck, a Sophomore, having finished a brief 1 month computer course, and newly recognised by Harris, the teacher.
  • Oldest member of the group, Keith, a Junior.
  • A previously recognised student, Tom, also a Sophomore, who had been recognised by Harris at the start of his Sophomore year.

Don't confuse Tom the Adult with Tom the Student, OK?

Anyway, this being one of the earlier years of computing (I graduated from college in 1973), Harry and Tom would run the various tasks of college administration during an early business day, starting at maybe 6:00, finishing anywhere from 10:00 to 14:00.

  • Tom, who I think was a retired farmer or something, would come in at 6:00 and take over Our Computer (well WE thought it was OUR computer), and run daily backups of the college database. When there wasn't scheduled end of month tasks, Tom could sometimes be persuaded to start a half hour or so late, if we were still hard at work, on a student problem, at 6:00.
  • Harry would get in at 8:00, and start the college administration data processing jobs.
  • Sometime before or after lunch (varying depending upon the amount of work to be done), Harry and Tom would unload the administration disks, lock the disks securely in the Vault, load the faculty / laboratory / student programs, bring the teletypes online, and then vanish from the Computer Center.
  • As soon as Harry and Tom vanished, we took over.


Day 1 - The Beginning Of The Exploit

Keith, Tom, and I were sitting in the Computer Center after hours doing whatever Student Assistants did, and trying to think of other things to do. The Computer Center was then in the basement of one of the dormitories, which was another story, not entirely computer related.

And one of the other two (I was not so imaginative on that day, my time came later) observed that the system Password File was a straight text file, and he knew where it sat (on one of the permanent system drives), for it was accessed throughout the day and night, whenever the online system was active. So we thought how much fun we could have peeking in all of the private faculty / student files, if we could write a program to open the Password File.

Well, this was not really a 5 minute project. It actually took us several days of experimenting, as the file was in EBCDIC, and the terminal system used ASCII (or was it vice versa). There was translation and transposition (one format stored two characters / word, reversed) of characters, so there was a bit of coding to do. And we did spend time with homework, occasionally.

Since reading the Password File involved EBCDIC to ASCII translation and transposition, we wrote the bulk of our hack in IBM 1800 Assembly code. The system was not terribly stable, and whenever we did something really stupid, we would get the equivalent of a Black Screen Of Death, which was then called a MLTP EAC (so named because an unrecoverable system error was characterised by MuLTiPle entries into the Error Alert Control program).

Anyway, sometime after Day 1, we had ourselves a hack. We were pretty proud of it too. But that was only the beginning.