This week, America’s sweetheart, Betty White, turned 95 years old. Born on January 17th, 1922, Ms. White has lived through some remarkable technological advances. One that many are familiar with in particular, is the fact that she is older than sliced bread. Social norms associated with discussing someone’s age aside, while Betty may be older than sliced bread, she is significantly younger than the first wireless attack. Yes, you read that correctly.
In 1903, during a public demonstration of inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless telegraphy system at the Royal Academy of Sciences in London, another inventor, Nevil Maskelyne, intercepted Marconi’s signal, sending Morse code through his receiver, denouncing Marconi’s work, and referring to Marconi and his demonstration partner as “rats”. Along with many other inventors of the time, a disgruntled Maskelyne felt slighted by specifics found in Marconi’s patents, which he believed restricted his ability to patent his own work.
Before the attack, Marconi claimed that his system was completely secure, and despite the fact that the data was going to travel over 300 miles through the air, it would remain intact and unobstructed. Maskelyne, the world’s first tech troll, was intent on proving otherwise.
Wireless telegraphy, also known as early radio, transmitted Morse code to receivers via electromagnetic waves. What Marconi believed to be an encrypted transmission—protected by the security of specific radio channels—was actually more akin to modern broadcast radio. Without any form of authentication, people can tune into any station and receive its broadcast. Maskelyne disproved and embarrassed Marconi by clarifying that wireless telegraphy was, in fact, not private at all.
To do this, Maskelyne configured a simple transmitter near the academy, which broadcasted signals so powerful that, if someone were to replicate it with modern-day radio, every analog transmission within several miles’ radius would be affected and sensitive equipment would be damaged. Maskelyne wasn’t concerned with specific frequencies, instead he made this transmission as broad as possible in order to increase the chances of disrupting Marconi’s demonstration. In addition, Maskelyne’s signals were so strong, they even interfered with the lamp and electricity inside Marconi’s projector.
Typically, wireless exploits are considered to be a modern threat, only affecting the most state-of-the-art technologies. However, Nevil Maskelyne proved he was far ahead of his time, successfully carrying out the first wireless exploit 114 years ago—well before the beloved Betty White was born. So, while many are focused on the fact that she’s older than sliced bread, a lesser known, but much more impressive bit of information lingers: Betty White is younger than the first wireless exploit. And that’s a fact.