We’ve all come across an annoying “tool person” at sometime or another in our lives. Maybe it was your dad, spouse, boyfriend, or neighbor. You know the person, the one who cherishes tools above everything else. Every tool in its place, all cleaned, shiny, pristine and hanging meticulously on an outlined peg board nailed perfectly to the garage wall. Somehow they always knew you when you borrowed a tool, whether it be a screwdriver or a wrench and even if it was just for a few minutes. You’d think that that particular tool controlled the Earth’s ability to properly rotate on its axis. Somehow, the screwdriver you borrowed is now ruined simply because you, not being a “tool person,” tightened a screw with it. As if screw tightening was rocket science.
Well, this is a story of one such tool person. But first, we need to enlist the help of Peabody and Sherman’s time machine to go back to the year 1963.
Bill Bennett was the machine shop craftsman at MIT and a member of the Tech Model Railroad Club (a group of individuals who had taken model train sets to new heights by modifying telephone relay switches to control the trains and tracks via the use of the University’s hulking $120,000 PDP-1 computer, and where the term “hacking” was first coined).
Bennett was also a “tool person” in a fanatical sense, almost as if tools were the Holy Grail of some shop religion. As such, he kept his tools secured under lock and key, away from the masses. The Hacker Ethic of the era was that of “free access.” Nothing that a hacker needed was considered by them to be off-limits, and Bennett’s tools were no exception. In the fall of 1963, a freshman named Stewart Nelson arrived on campus and quickly rose to the hacker elite. Of course, Nelson firmly believed in the Hacker Ethic, probably more so than any other hacker of the day, and he often raided Bennett’s tool cabinet. Needless to say, this caused Bennett extreme distress and when discovering a late night trespass on his tools he would often complain to the administration, to no avail. At one point he painted cautionary warning lines on the floor, roped off the area where his tools were stored, and gave everyone a stern warning to stay away. There was even talk of the tools being booby-trapped. Still, nothing would, or could, stop the adventurous Nelson. Each new restriction just seemed to up the ante between the two, almost as if it were a game of sorts. Tool man versus hacker.
One evening, Nelson borrowed a screwdriver and returned it all scratched up. When the marred screwdriver was discovered in the morning by Bennett, he knew exactly who was responsible and immediately faced-off with Nelson. Nelson was usually a quiet sort, but when confronted by the angry Bennett about the screwdriver he just seemed to come unglued as well. In the heated exchange between the two, Nelson retorted that the screwdriver was just about “used up” anyway. Not the words a craftsman, who sees his pristine tools as some sort of religious icons, wants to hear. Used up!? Used up?? Bennett went absolutely ballistic. (Nelson later said that he felt as if he was about to be beaten to a pulp after speaking those ill-fated words). To Bennett, tools were private property. Something you take care of and hand down to your children. Nelson, on the other hand, subscribed to the theory that a tool was something to be used by the person who could make the most of it, and if the tool, or any piece of equipment, failed or was no longer of any use a hacker would gingerly toss it aside saying it was, “Used up.”
A few days later, Nelson wanted to make some modifications to the University’s computer. Access to the internal hardware and workings of the computer were strictly off limits to everyone but a chosen few. Nelson paid no attention to such restrictions, After all, he was a hacker hacking for the global good. Restrictions only applied to everyone else. He wanted to make some adjustments to the computer’s power supply and needed a screwdriver, and he knew just where to get one — Bennett’s tool cabinet. Liberating a screwdriver, Nelson went to work on the power supply. As he stuck the screwdriver in, he was instantly thrown back by a huge jolt of electricity. It seems the circuit breaker had not been properly tripped and was still in an awkward “on” position. He emerged from the incident a bit shaken but unharmed. However, the screwdriver didn’t fare nearly so well. The tip of it had been completely melted off by the arcing electricity.
The next day when Bennett returned to his office, there, lying on his desk, was what was left of the melted screwdriver together with a note that simply read, “Used up.”
Levy, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Anchor Press/Double Day, 1984. Reprinted Penguin Group, 1999 paperback, updated 2001.