Origin of Wireless Security: the Marconi Radio Hack of 1903
By Richard Baguley
Mar 2 2017
The place is the historic lecture theater of the Royal Institution in London. The date is the 4th of June 1903, and the inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, is about to demonstrate his new wireless system, which he claims can securely send messages over a long distance, without interference by tuning the signal.
The inventor himself was over 300 miles away in Cornwall, preparing to send the messages to his colleague Professor Fleming in the theater. Towards the end of Professor Flemings lecture, the receiver sparks into life, and the morse code printer started printing out one word repeatedly: “Rats”. It then spelled out an insulting limerick: “There was a young man from Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily”. Marconi’s supposedly secure system had been hacked.
The person behind this hack was Nevil Maskelyne, an inventor, magician, and general troublemaker who was a long-time rival of Marconi. He was the manager of a rival wireless company and had been involved in a number of disputes with Marconi over the patents that covered wireless telegraphy systems. He decided that the most effective way to show that Marconi’s claims were hollow was a practical demonstration.
In the trade journal The Electrician (the Hackaday of its time) he detailed how he hacked the system. One of the fundamental claims of Marconi was that because his system used a tuned signal, other signals would not interfere unless they were tuned to the same frequency. This, however, had not been proven to the satisfaction of Maskelyne, and he didn’t accept that the system was really secure. So, he set out to demonstrate this. But how could you prove this? In his account in The Electrican, he wrote that:
“When, however, it was pointed out to me that the practical demonstrations accompanying the lecture rendered independent tests possible, I at once grasped the fact that the opportunity was too good to be missed…The only hope, then, was to interpolate messages calculated to anger and “draw” somebody at the receiving end. If that could be done, there would be proof positive.”
His plan involved setting up a transmitter not far from the lecture (supposedly in the theater that his father, a famous stage magician, owned) that would overwhelm the signals from Cornwall. His transmitter, he claimed, was not run at full power: while it was capable of outputting 8 or 9 Amps, he turned it down to 2.5 Amps. He didn’t simply block the signal, but instead transmitted his own morse signal for a short time, claiming that he “studiously refrained from all unnecessary interference”.