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The Tech Model Railroad Club

Hacker culture germinated in the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT. On the surface it was a typical model railroad club: a giant layout with many trains, a mass of second-hand switching equipment from Ma Bell. But this was MIT and these railroaders were future engineers. Some of them became quite obsessed.

The club attracted two distinct types of enthusiasts. There were those who worked up top, lovingly creating a miniature world of tracks and towns and trees, and those who moved about in the dark tangle of wires and relays beneath that world, keeping the trains running on time. To this second group, the Signals and Power committee, the beauty of the scenery could not compare to the beauty of the system, the electrical trails of clicking relays that guided trains along ever-changing routes through landscapes of balsa and lichen and whatever.

That beauty eventually led the TMRC hackers out of the clubroom in search of more elaborate systems. At night they roamed the darkened halls of MIT, looking for unlocked doors. It didn’t take long to find the computer rooms. One, on the first floor of building 26, housed the giant batch-processing IBM 709, but much more interesting was a smaller room upstairs where they found a computer called the TX-0.

Unlike the big IBM, the TX-0 had a monitor screen and a keyboard where you could sit down and type in commands. What was really great was that you were expected to sit down and type in commands. There was no tightfisted operator between you and the machine. The TX-0 fed the TMRC hackers’ desire for knowledge and understanding in a way that a train layout, no matter how sophisticated, could not. It was around this computer, and later the similar PDP-1, that a group of model railroaders became the first computer hackers.

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