A Brief History of Caltech Pranks

[Essay sent to the California Tech on November 8, 2002]

Caltech’s history has been marked by several great pranks, and for many current students, this was probably one of the things that attracted them to Caltech. We all know the big ones: The Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961, when the Rose Bowl crowd inexplicably spelled “Caltech” with a card stunt; the inscription of DEI/FEIF on the Voyager I and Voyager II spacecraft, now leaving the solar system; rewiring the Rose Bowl scoreboard to show “Caltech 38, MIT 9” in 1984; and on Hollywood’s 100th anniversary, altering the Hollywood sign to read “CALTECH.” It has been over a decade since there was a prank of national interest, but recently, Techers made the local papers by constructing a mock Vectors on the Beckman Lawn.

If any students are interested in perpetrating other similar pranks, there is $200 set aside in the ASCIT Budget for that purpose. That fund, interestingly enough, has its roots in the “Prank Club” that was founded in 1987 for the Hollywood sign project. The big pranks that make headlines are the ones that are remembered, but they represent only a small fraction of the innumerable pranks that are happening on campus all the time.

With clockwork regularity, Techers pull pranks on each other. This happens on an interpersonal level, an inter-alley level, and an interhouse level, leaving no Techer unscathed in his/her years on campus. These smaller pranks come in many forms: stringing chairs across the Olive Walk, building metal dolphins in Millikan Pond, stacking someone in their room, and the occasional exchange of furniture.

This may paint a picture of a campus in total anarchy, where no student feels safe, but in fact, the atmosphere of pranking does quite the opposite. Pranks are a way for students to unwind; they provide a level of closeness and a way to escape the pressures of academics. Pranks are a fundamentally social activity – at the very least, two people are involved: the prankster and the victim. A good prank doesn’t humiliate the victim, it is something both parties can laugh about. A prank done with style will gain the respect and admiration of your peers. Tipping over trash cans is artless and frowned upon, but delivering papier-mâché appendages is commended by students, if not by the administration.

Pranking is not about terrorizing other students, but is more about outsmarting them. An easy rule to remember when pulling a prank is the only rule you ever really have to know: It’s called the Honor Code. When you cause physical damage, pay for the repairs. If people feel uncomfortable, don’t cross that line. Most importantly, with every prank, remember to leave a note.