While popular media might think of a “hacker” as someone who breaks into computer systems, defaces web sites and steals personal information, it turns out there’s a lot more to the term.
Hackers were – and still are – people who like to take things apart, figure out how they work, and share the knowledge that they’ve gained. The term originated in the 1960’s, with MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The “hackers” who created the circuits for the trains eventually migrated over to computers where their tinkering skills were put to use programming.
These first hackers spawned many ideologies regarding openness and freedom that are still popular today. The idea that “information wants to be free” as well as the free software movement both came out of their work.
In the late 70’s, the idea of a hacker moved out of the academic world and into the hands of hobbyists. The Homebrew Computer Club was a group of computer and electronics hackers in Silicon Valley that played a major role in the creation of the personal computer. Members included Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple.
This propensity to share and tinker ended up creating devices that made free phone calls, and encouraging the sharing of computer software. The 80’s saw this aspect diverge into the media’s portrayal of hackers as criminals, while the hacker community encouraged the use of the word “cracker” to describe their malicious cousins.
Cocktail Party Fact
Crackers are often referred to as “script kiddies” by more knowledgable hackers, because their “hacking skills” most often involve nothing but running a script (or program) to gain access to a hacked computer.