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A domed miniature replica of a Caltech cannon was left behind at the MIT campus after the real thing (right) was taken back last week.
A domed miniature replica of a Caltech cannon was left behind at the MIT campus after the real thing (right) was taken back last week. (Photos by Erin White/ Handout (left) and Neal Hamberg/ Associated Press)

Comedy on campus: MIT takes on Caltech for prank distinction

When MIT students recently heisted a cannon from archrival Caltech's campus and transported it cross-country to Cambridge, the pranksters weren't the only celebrants.

MIT's opening salvo in a war of pranks delighted a high-ranking Caltech administrator and some students, who had feared that such activities were on the wane.

Students at both the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been pranking -- or hacking, as it is known at MIT -- since at least the 1930s. Books document the prank culture, which is considered an escape from the intense academic pressure of top-tier science and engineering schools.

Often involving as much engineering as theatrics, pranks give students an opportunity to use their skills to solve real-world problems, administrators and students say.

''Hacks are a coping mechanism," said Samuel Jay Keyser, a professor emeritus at MIT. ''The hack culture makes this place bearable."

In recent years, pranking has been on the decline at Caltech, in Pasadena, and at Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont, Calif., even as the activity has remained hip at MIT.

MIT stole the cannon in response to Caltech's start of a new war of pranks a little more than a year ago.

''The grand old days of pranking have gone away at Caltech, and that's what we are trying to bring back," said Tom Mannion, the assistant vice president for campus life at Caltech.

One of Mannion's main initiatives on the Pasadena campus is to revive the pranking culture. In fact, security has orders not to intervene in a prank unless officers get Mannion's approval beforehand.

Mannion attributes the decline in pranks at Caltech to the rise in personal computer use, which gives students ways to entertain themselves and less incentive to gather in groups for fun.

He also said that national security concerns after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have deterred many pranks. A Caltech prankster's query to local authorities about dropping fake snow on the Rose Parade led to a visit from a wide array of local and federal authorities, Mannion said. Still, MIT students posed as workers from a moving company, and managed to get a large piece of artillery across the country, without intervention.

Chris Sundberg, Harvey Mudd College's associate dean of students, said the fear of terrorism is not the only thing that has put the brakes on pranking.

''A lot of the things students used to do could get you arrested now," Sundberg said. ''With liabilities the way they are, and how heavily regulated everything is, it's almost impossible to prank."

David Somers, who as a Harvey Mudd student heisted the same Caltech cannon 20 years ago, said the decline in pranks has to do with fact that more women are attending the big science and engineering schools.

''Maybe students now have a more normal outlet for their stress. Maybe they are focusing more on each other instead of being a bunch of frustrated guys focusing on pranks," Somers said.

Whatever the reason for the decline at their schools, students, faculty, and alumni of both Harvey Mudd and Caltech are rooting for a renaissance of tomfoolery.

Harvey Mudd students have founded a group whose aim is to revive traditional college activities, including pranks.

Caltech students launched the prank-off with MIT during MIT's weekend for prospective freshman last year.

They distributed MIT T-shirts to visitors, who noticed much later that the shirts said, ''Because not everyone can go to Caltech" on the back.

Caltech students also designed a laser that projected the word Caltech on the side of an MIT building.

The students are documenting the competition on a website.

''We thought that if we could do something to MIT it would create some energy around here, to convince people they could still do stuff," said a Caltech sophomore, Todd Gingrich. ''Had MIT ignored us, things would have probably just died down again."

According to Somers, making high-stakes hi-jinks an intercollegiate competition provides engineering students with an outlet for something more than stress.

''There is no way that MIT, Caltech, and Harvey Mudd are going to duke it out in major sports. Yet the students there have a strong competitive nature. Rather than rooting for sports teams, it comes out in pranks," he said.

Somers said the cannon prank has piqued interest in the activity at all three schools.

''I know of groups on all three campuses that are planning the next prank," he said. ''There is going to be a new wave of this."

An MIT prankster, who declined to give his name because the MIT code of hacking dictates that they remain anonymous, said he is looking forward to it.

''Caltech issued the challenge and came here last year, and then we took the cannon in response to that," he said. ''Now the ball is in their court."

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