As Seen on TV: When Hackers Hacked a BBC Computer Live in 1983

Two BBC presenters are caught off guard as they try to explain email to viewers at home.

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Jun 22 2015, 5:30pm

Image: Alessandro Grussu/Flickr

In autumn of 1983, Ian McNaught-Davis and John Coll logged into British Telecom Gold—one of Britain's first e-mail services—on live television in order to demonstrate to viewers at home how the new technology worked. But instead of receiving their newest messages (or "letters", as Coll charmingly called them), the two presenters were confronted with a jovial pirate's song in what would go down in history as possibly the first live on-air hacking (the hack begins at roughly 1:09:00 if you'd like to skip ahead).

At the time, the BBC was two years into a national initiative aimed at improving computer literacy in schools and homes across Britain. The BBC Computer Literacy Project saw the Beeb partner with the computer manufacturer Acorn to release the BBC Micro, a series of microcomputers and peripherals, as well as educational programming geared to stimulate the nascent computing community.

After the broadcast, hypotheses swirled around how the hack was executed, according to Hugo Cornwall's Hacker Handbook. British Telecom, who were actively promoting their service to the business community as a secure platform were incensed and accused the BBC of perhaps staging the event for notoriety. The BBC, eager to protect its journalistic reputation, denied the accusation. One rumour held that the answer was quite simple; that when the program's floor producer told John Coll the system's password before the show, he forgot to turn his microphone off. One of the show's guests may have heard the password over the studio's PA system, and phoned a friend who accessed the email account and left the message. It's worth noting that this explanation stretches the definition of the word "hack."

The BBC Computer Literacy Project went on to become one of the most successful public computer literacy initiatives in history, helped by the British Government's consumer subsidy of the Micro, which would eventually find a home in Britain's new National Videogame Arcade.