The Freshman Fishwrap / IHTFP Hack Gallery

Renaming of Athena Workstations after the Chemical Elements

Location: Student Center Athena Cluster, room W20-575
Date: 4/1/93

To both the amusement and consternation of students, faculty and staff, MIT uses numbers to describe nearly everything, including buildings, rooms (even closets and bathrooms!), departments, classes, and students.

Surprisingly, computers had always been an exception to this convention--they had a plethora of interesting names, including names out of all sorts of literature from science fiction and fantasy novels to cartoons, to foods and beverages to the seven deadly sins.

However, when Athena deployed thousands of workstations around the campus, rather than come up with thousands of unique names for the workstations, the Athena management instead chose to simply number them according to the rooms they occupied. Many students were nonplused about this decision, and suggested all sorts of names for the public workstations, but Athena officials wouldn't even consider the suggestions.

The Athena cluster in the Student Center is the largest single cluster of Athena workstations on campus. The cluster covers about one-third of the fifth floor of the student center, and contains 129 workstations. The ``names'' of the workstations are w20-575-1 through w20-575-129.

On April Fool's Day 1993, hackers renamed the workstations after the chemical elements. Thus w20-575-1 became w20-hydrogen, w20-575-2 became w20-helium, and so on. Since there are more workstations in the cluster than known elements, the hackers used other compounds, such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen peroxide, for the remaining workstations.

The hackers implemented the name change on the software of each workstation (so that each machine's name actually became the new name), and through a label placed on each machine depicting its new name:


A sample label. Click on it to see others.

A flaw in the implementation of the hack caused the ``attach'' command to not work properly, which confused many users. When the hackers realized the problem, they sent an amusing request to the netreq mailing list, asking for the hack names to be added to the MIT namespace for the day. I/S reluctantly complied. The workstations' names reverted back to the original names the following day, despite the fact that many users preferred the new names.


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