Steven Levy talks about one of the less likely origins of part of the hacking world — MIT’s model railroad club:
Peter Samson had been a member of the Tech Model Railroad Club since his first week at MIT in the fall of 1958. The first event that entering MIT freshmen attended was a traditional welcoming lecture, the same one that had been given for as long as anyone at MIT could remember. LOOK AT THE PERSON TO YOUR LEFT … LOOK AT THE PERSON TO YOUR RIGHT … ONE OF YOU THREE WILL NOT GRADUATE FROM THE INSTITUTE. The intended effect of the speech was to create that horrid feeling in the back of the collective freshman throat that signaled unprecedented dread. All their lives, these freshmen had been almost exempt from academic pressure. The exemption had been earned by virtue of brilliance. Now each of them had a person to the right and a person to the left who was just as smart. Maybe even smarter.
There were enough obstacles to learning already — why bother with stupid things like brown-nosing teachers and striving for grades? To students like Peter Samson, the quest meant more than the degree.
Sometime after the lecture came Freshman Midway. All the campus organizations — special-interest groups, fraternities, and such — set up booths in a large gymnasium to try to recruit new members. The group that snagged Peter was the Tech Model Railroad Club. Its members, bright-eyed and crew-cutted upperclassmen who spoke with the spasmodic cadences of people who want words out of the way in a hurry, boasted a spectacular display of HO gauge trains they had in a permanent clubroom in Building 20. Peter Samson had long been fascinated by trains, especially subways. So he went along on the walking tour to the building, a shingle-clad temporary structure built during World War II. The hallways were cavernous, and even though the clubroom was on the second floor it had the dank, dimly lit feel of a basement.
The clubroom was dominated by the huge train layout. It just about filled the room, and if you stood in the little control area called “the notch” you could see a little town, a little industrial area, a tiny working trolley line, a papier-mache mountain, and of course a lot of trains and tracks. The trains were meticulously crafted to resemble their full-scale counterparts, and they chugged along the twists and turns of track with picture-book perfection. And then Peter Samson looked underneath the chest-high boards which held the layout. It took his breath away. Underneath this layout was a more massive matrix of wires and relays and crossbar switches than Peter Samson had ever dreamed existed. There were neat regimental lines of switches, and achingly regular rows of dull bronze relays, and a long, rambling tangle of red, blue, and yellow wires—twisting and twirling like a rainbow-colored explosion of Einstein’s hair. It was an incredibly complicated system, and Peter Samson vowed to find out how it worked.
There were two factions of TMRC. Some members loved the idea of spending their time building and painting replicas of certain trains with historical and emotional value, or creating realistic scenery for the layout. This was the knife-and-paintbrush contingent, and it subscribed to railroad magazines and booked the club for trips on aging train lines. The other faction centered on the Signals and Power Subcommittee of the club, and it cared far more about what went on under the layout. This was The System, which worked something like a collaboration between Rube Goldberg and Wernher von Braun, and it was constantly being improved, revamped, perfected, and sometimes “gronked” — in club jargon, screwed up. S&P people were obsessed with the way The System worked, its increasing complexities, how any change you made would affect other parts, and how you could put those relationships between the parts to optimal use.