As we all know, Facebook’s Headquarters office is located in Menlo Park, California, and as some of us do – the central address of the campus is actually 1 Hacker Way. Yeah, at first it sounds like an irony or a pun, but not after we closely examine the etymology of the word hacker.
The term hacker originated from the verb to hack (to chop, to cut), formed within English, and first recorded in use in 1398, in John Trevisa’s translation of the early encyclopaedia De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things) in its meaning of ‘a tool for cutting woods’.
Two centuries later, the term was first recorded to name the person doing the cutting, ‘the slasher’, as Matthew Sutcliffe writes in his 1593 Practical, Proc., & Lawes of Armes: “Our great cutters & hackers, in the streets of London, are seldom great hackers of the enemy.”
And while a good wood cutter is not per se a good killer, the reference soon entered the colloquial language and the term used to name violent thieves and murders, as recorded in Robert Burton’s The anatomy of melancholy from 1621: “A common hacker, or a notorious thief.”
It was in the Tech Model Railroad Club of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that the term came to relate to firstly, ‘fussing with machines’, recorded in the minutes of an April, 1955, meeting: “Mr. Eccles requests that anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing” and secondly, defining the term hack in a 1959’s dictionary of the club as ‘something done without constructive end; a project undertaken on bad self-advice; an entropy booster’’, at a time when the MIT was gaining notorious popularity for pranks involving phone hackers, documented in the MIT student newspaper in 1963:” The hackers have accomplished such things as tying up all the tie-lines between Harvard and MIT, or making long-distance calls by charging them to a local radar installation.”
In 1965, William D. Mathews from MIT found a vulnerability in a CTSS running on an IBM 7094 that reveled the system passwords; and 3 years later, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology once again, but this time its Department of Meteorology, and in particular Thompson’s thesis Instabilities of some time-dependent flows became the first to use the compound computer hacker: “W. B. Ackermann helped when the machine would not cooperate. Many other computer hackers also willingly offered advice.”
The term, initially meant to name just any enthusiast interested in computer systems, soon become an essential part of the lexicon of those enthusiasts, with The Boston Globe defining hackers as ‘computer nuts’ in 1984 and the hacker subculture as based on the idea of writing software and sharing the result on a voluntary basis.
In 1979, Kevin Mitnick gained an unauthorised access to a computer network at the age of 16, and his arrest in 1995 raised the consciousness of hacking and computer security in the general population and the term hacker acquired its negative connotation.