Surfin’: Call Me Radio Hacker


By Stan Horzepa, WA1LOU
Contributing Editor
April 9, 2010

This week, Surfin' explores the world of etymology and the misappropriation of the word “hacker.”

Two weeks ago, my introduction to Surfin’ read, “This week, the denizens of the Surfin’ visit blogs intended for ham radio hackers and makers.”

Days later, I received this comment from Darin Dykes, KK5WA: “I had a fairly intense e-mail exchange with a ham in the ham radio media (not associated with the ARRL) several years ago after a report mentioned hackers. He wasn’t interested in making any distinction between real hacking like we do on electronics or a car engine, and malicious hacking. I’m glad to see someone who can make that distinction.”

Darin’s comment brought back a flood of memories. I recalled the good old days when the word “hacker” was not a dirty word. Instead, hackers were the makers and creators of the technological age as epitomized by Steven Levy in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.

Being a self-taught computer programmer, I considered myself a hacker, too, and I devoured Levy’s book. It was truly a book that I could not put down. Published in 1984, Levy’s tales about the early mainframe hackers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the hardware and software hackers that followed in their footsteps was fascinating reading to this writer.

So much so that the first sentence of my first book -- (Your Gateway To Packet Radio -- was “Call me Radio Hacker," a modern-day twist of the first sentence of my favorite book, Moby Dick: Or The Whale.

By the way, Levy’s Hackers is still in print, whereas Horzepa’s Your Gateway is not; however, Your Gateway is available on in new and used condition.

According to the MIT IHTFP Hack Gallery, the word “hack” at MIT usually refers to a clever, benign, and “ethical” prank or practical joke, “which is both challenging for the perpetrators and amusing to the MIT community (and sometimes even the rest of the world!). Note that this has nothing to do with computer (or phone) hacking (which we call ‘cracking’).”

Some hackers used their skills to break through the security of private computer systems just to prove that they could do it. Usually, the hackers did no harm, but a few did and the news media, ever on the lookout for a new subject to exploit, hijacked the term “hacker” and redefined it to infer criminal activity. The media persisted in criminalizing the word and hacker now has a nefarious connotation among the general public.

I have always ignored the hijacking of hacker and continued to use it according to its original meaning. I know my persistence did not make much of a dent in the media’s misappropriation of the term, but it is gratifying to learn that I am not alone -- there are others who use the word as originally intended.

Until next time, keep on surfin’!

Editor’s note: Stan Horzepa, WA1LOU, has never met a “hacker” he didn't like. To contact Stan, send him e-mail or add comments to his blog.