A hack is a smart fix to a problem. It is a cunning solve that cuts to the solution. It was first used at MIT in the mid 20th century. In the minutes of the April 1955 of the Tech Model Railroad Club event, “Mr. Eccles requests that anyone … hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing.”

Hackers enjoy overcoming technical limitations and achieving new results. What makes a hack a hack and not just a solution is how it is done. A hack needs to be clever, meaningful, and it needs to be exciting.

Hacks and hacker culture originated in the 1950s and '60s. Early computers were huge and expensive; restricting use to public machines. Starting at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and moving to more universities over time.

Richard Stallman explains early computer hackers,

"What they had … was [a] love of excellence and programming. They wanted to make their programs … be as good as … anyone believed possible…"

Before the Internet, there were many independent hacker communities. All had three essential traits in common:


Emphasis on rationality

Playful cleverness

From these traits the two most accurate definitions for a hack arose:

  1. n. A quick piec of work that produces what is needed

  2. n. An especially useful, and perhaps very time-consuming, a piece of work that produces exactly what is required.

Originally MIT, Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University were the hotbeds of early hacker society. As networks grew, hacks were shared and evolved. Characteristic of this evolution was an increasing adoption of common slang and a shared view of history. Unlike other occupational groups, hackers professionalized themselves without a formal credentialing process.

Hacker subculture drives the commoditization of computer and networking technology. In 1975, hackerdom scattered across several disparate networks. Today it is an Internet phenomenon.

Over time, the academic hacker subculture became conscious, more cohesive, and better organized. Whenever hacking it's essential to try to embody these tenets: sharing, openness, and collaboration. Whether you are hacking the Linux kernel, working on a robotics project destined for Hackaday, or just coming up with a simple life hack, always try to interact with machines with a playful and exploratory style.

Next time someone asks you, “Whatcha up to?”

Be ready to answer, “Oh… hacking.”