The Great MIT-Caltech Prank War

19 February 2013

I quote from :


The Caltech–MIT rivalry is a college rivalry between the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), stemming from the colleges’ reputations as top science and engineering schools in the United States. The rivalry is unusual given the geographic distance between the schools (their campuses are separated by about 3000 miles and are on opposite coasts of the United States), as well as its focus on elaborate pranks rather than sporting events.

Campus Preview Weekend pranks

In April 2005, Caltech students instigated a series of pranks during MIT’s Campus Preview Weekend:

  • Caltech students snuck into two fairs for the prospective freshmen and handed out 400 T-shirts that were packaged so that “MIT” was visible on the front, but the reverse design, the words “because not everybody can go to Caltech” and a drawing of a palm tree, were obscured until the package was opened.
  • Inflatable palm trees were placed on the Great Dome and in the Tomb of the Unknown Tool, an important location in MIT’s roof and tunnel hacking culture, after the Caltech students had sneaked into a “Tangerine Tour” of these locations intended for prospective freshmen.
  • A hundred orange balloons (orange being Caltech’s official color) and a large blimp with the letters “CIT” were floated inside Lobby 7.
  • The inscription on the exterior of the Lobby 7 dome facingMassachusetts Avenue was changed to read “That Other Institute of Technology” instead of “Massachusetts Institute of Technology”.
  • The letters “CALTECH” were written on the Green Building with a green laser.

MIT students counterpranked the Lobby 7 dome to read “The Only Institute of Technology”, and had to resort to pulling the blimp down using helium balloons covered in sticky tape. One student unsuccessfully attempted to DDOS the Caltech students’ website documenting the pranks. The pranks were seen as a way to merge Caltech and MIT’s independent but similar pranking cultures. Campus Preview Weekend was chosen because the Caltech students would blend in with the unfamiliar prospective freshmen, and to increase the pranks’ visibility. MIT Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones said, “I think it’s hilarious. I consider hacks a performance art, and I like the concept of inter-institute rivalry.”

Fleming Cannon heist

Caltech is home to the 1.7-ton, 130-year-old Fleming Cannon. The origins and exact age of the Fleming Cannon are not known with certainty. It is believed to have been cast during the Franco-Prussian War era, but completed in 1878 after the war was over. It was then given by the French to the United States where it was re-bored to fit American shells and the carriage constructed, but this work was completed too late for it to see use in the Spanish-American War. The cannon soon became obsolete and was donated to Southwestern Academy in San Marino, California, where it was displayed on the front lawn starting in 1925. By 1972, the school was seeking to discard the cannon, and a group of Caltech students from Fleming House took possession of the cannon and laboriously restored it to working condition. The cannon was returned to Southwestern in 1975 at the insistence of the Caltech administration, but it was permanently restored to Caltech in 1981. The cannon is one of the few objects at Caltech which is designated as unprankable given its age, fragility, and irreplaceable nature.

On March 28, 2006, the cannon disappeared from the Caltech campus, having been taken by people posing as contractors, fooling a security guard with a phony work order. At the time, the cannon was not at its normal location outside Fleming House, where it is normally locked to the ground, due to ongoing renovations. The identity of the perpetrators was initially unknown, and there was speculation that it had been stolen by nearby Harvey Mudd College, who had been responsible for a well-known theft of the cannon almost twenty years prior.

However, it was soon revealed that the cannon had been appropriated by MIT in retaliation for the previous year’s pranks, and relocated to Cambridge. On April 6 it appeared in front of the Green Building sporting a giant 21-pound gold-plated aluminum Brass Rat around its barrel, which was positioned to point towards Pasadena, and female MIT students mockingly posted pictures of themselves posing in bikinis with the cannon. It was revealed that preparations for the heist had been underway since December, and had involved a team of 21 MIT students. MIT was softly criticized for not leaving a note explaining that the theft was a prank, as required by Caltech’s pranking ethics, which were said to be more stringent than MIT’s, but the prank was largely taken in good humor at both campuses.

Fleming House students and alumni quickly began plotting for the return of the cannon, setting up a command center in a trailer on campus and soliciting donations from alumni. Their initial plan was to use a helicopter to fly the cannon out of the MIT campus. Initial arrangements were made with a helicopter company, but Federal Aviation Administration rules ultimately made this untenable. The students instead decided to surreptitiously steal back the cannon under cover of darkness. On the morning of April 10, about two dozen Fleming students, dressed in their signature red Fleming jerseys, descended upon the cannon to reclaim it and begin its journey back to Pasadena. However, MIT students had been tipped off and were waiting for the Caltech students with a friendly barbecue prepared, and played Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, a forbidden song at Caltech, as the Flems entered. The Fleming students left a miniature toy cannon with a note reading, “Here’s something a little more your size.”

Later developments

During MIT’s CPW in 2007, Caltech distributed a sixteen-page fake edition of MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech, containing articles such as “Math Dept. Hires Rising Star Matt Damon”, “Infinite Corridor Not Actually Infinite”, referring to MIT’s iconic main thoroughfare, and a mock advertisement for sperm donation offering more money for Caltech students than MIT students. The prank was inspired by the suggestion that a similar fake-newspaper caper had been perpetrated by the University of Southern California against the University of California, Los Angeles in the past, and the paper was prepared in just two weeks with 15,000 issues were printed. The three Caltech students sent to distribute the papers at MIT initially tried to drop the papers at The Tech‘s normal distribution points, but these were quickly discovered and removed by MIT students. The Caltech students then turned to distributing the papers individually on the sidewalk outside of Lobby 7, a location outside the jurisdiction of the MIT Police.

In 2008, Caltech students provided a “Puzzle Zero” in the MIT Mystery Hunt which when solved, told solvers to call a specific number in the 626 area code immediately. When MIT students dialed the number, they heard, “Thank you for calling the Caltech Admissions Office. If you are another MIT student wishing to transfer to Caltech, please download our transfer application form from If you are an MIT student not wishing to transfer to Caltech, we wish you the best of luck, and hope you find happiness someday….”

Another series of pranks was planned for Thanksgiving weekend in 2009, involving transforming MIT into “Caltech East: School of Humanities”. The pranks were planned over the course of six months. Caltech students intended to deploy two large banners that were designed to be easy to place, but removal would require a cherry picker or a rappel. However, the design of MIT’s Killian Court prevented the placement of one of them, and another was intercepted by MIT security before its deployment could be completed. Another fake edition of The Tech was released, stating that students would be required to take a core of literature, history, philosophy, and economics, but science subjects would be eliminated. Although the failure of the pranks was considered to be a disappointment, Caltech and MIT students afterwards shared breakfast at a local diner.

In September 2010, MIT hackers attempted to place a TARDIS time machine on the roof of Baxter Hall at Caltech, but were foiled by Caltech Security. It was stated that this was due to MIT students’ failure to tell the Caltech administration about the prank in advance. However, in January 2011, Caltech and MIT students cooperated in placing the TARDIS on the roof. The TARDIS had previously been seen on the MIT Great Dome in August 2010, and was subsequently transported to buildings at the University of California, Berkeley, and then Stanford University.


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