Caltech pranks are a key part of the institute's history and identity. Below are just a few of the most famous ones performed throughout the decades. Of course these are but a sample of the day-to-day excitement that happens on campus, and new tales are written every year. (Stories have been excerpted from Legends of Caltech Volumes I, II, and III.)
The Grand Daddy of Them All
Look for a list of the greatest college pranks of all time and the infamous 1961 Rose Bowl prank will always be near the top of the list. A group from Lloyd house did what seemed to be impossible: have Caltech make an appearance at a Rose Bowl game. That year the Washington Husky cheerleaders had created a detailed system for cheers. When they called out a number, people in the stands held up certain cards, which then displayed a message or pattern. Caltech undergraduates replaced the instruction cards from the cheerleaders' hotel room with "improved" copies. There were 15 card stunts on the instruction cards. Number 14 was the one that made the history books. Toward the end of the game, unsuspecting Washington fans held up their cards high to sky, displaying the name Caltech for the world to see.
Hooray for Caltech
Hollywood, California turned 100 years old in 1987, and to celebrate the occasion, Caltech students thought they would honor the city in their own special way—by changing the world-famous "Hollywood" sign into the "soon to be world-famous" Caltech sign. Undergraduates from Page and Ricketts houses combined forces (and several hundred dollars) to purchase enough black and white plastic for the task, and under a cloak of darkness on one May evening, transformed the California icon into something a little more Pasadena friendly.
Caltech 38, MIT 9
The 1984 Rose Bowl game featured Illinois against UCLA. But it also featured a return visit from a certain school in Pasadena. After much detective work, a group of undergraduates from Blacker House successfully figured out how to operate the Rose Bowl scoreboard remotely. After tweaking the board to read U.C.L.A (from UCLA), the group started displaying more elaborate messages, finishing by changing with team names from UCLA and Illinois to Caltech and MIT. In the end, the ringleaders received job offers from the scoreboard manufacturer.
That Other Institute of Technology
Most Caltech pranks occur locally. This one took place more than 2,500 miles away. For the 2005 MIT prefrosh weekend, a group of Techers hopped on planes and proceeded to make their mark on their rival campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The prank included a laser show displayed on MIT's tallest building, a Caltech blimp lifted high into the rafters of the MIT Great Dome, a sign draped over the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sign that made it read "That Other Institute of Technology", and the best of all: 1,000 free t-shirts passed out to the unsuspecting prefrosh. The front of the shirts read: "MIT"; the back: "Because Not Everyone Can Go To Caltech."
Always Read the Fine Print
The next time you see a mile of fine print at the end of a contest entry form, don't blame the lawyers, blame the Techers. In 1975 McDonald's held a contest that allowed people to "enter as often as you wish." A group from Page house took the offer literally. More than 1 million entries were printed and deposited to 98 different McDonald's restaurants across southern California. The students took much flack in the press for the prank, but in the end all was made right. The group had won 20% of the prizes offered, including a station wagon, $3,000, and some 300 $5 gift certificates. The car went to the United Way and the money paid for the prank, and improvements to the house.
Why Yes, A Model T Can Fit in This Dorm Room
Leave it to Techers to figure out a way to place a running car inside a dorm room. It was 1940 and what began as a $10 investment at a used car lot ended in a fully assembled, engine idling Model T Ford in Ricketts House, Room 49. For the record, the car fit with four inches to spare, and all the room's furniture needed to be temporarily held in the nearby restroom (where the victim spent the evening).
I Know my Dorm Room Was Here a Second Ago
You always need to keep your guard up at Caltech, as you never know when your whole dorm room might vanish. That's what happened in 1972 when a poor undergraduate came back from a week's vacation only to find his room had completely disappeared. The magic act worked as follow: First they filled his room with more than a ton of crumpled up computer paper. Once assured the door could not open, they proceeded to plaster over the door. Then came a new coat of paint for the hallway, some added baseboards, the replacement of a lighting fixture. And presto! One less room.
Allow Us to Move that Blackboard for You
For decades Professor Tom Apostol's famous textbooks (affectionately known as "Tommy I" and "Tommy II") were part of Caltech undergraduate life. And for many students, Apostol himself taught from the texts. Such was the case in 1981 when Apostol was teaching freshman in a lecture hall equipped with newly installed, motorized blackboards. Needless to say, a group of undergraduates took it upon themselves to build a way to control the blackboards. During one June lecture, the group took the liberty of moving the boards for their teacher. The finale of the prank? A choreographed blackboard dance movement set to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."
Nor Your Average Coke Machine
If it was the late 1990s, and if you happened to be in Lloyd house — and thirsty for a soft drink — you most likely encountered one of the most sophisticated vending machines on Earth. The Lloyd coke machine was a wonder. You could use it to play Simon. It would applaud when you made a purchase. It told you the time. And with the rise of the Internet, the machine allowed for remote access, and even sported a Web cam.
Pull Up a Toilet Seat and Stay for Tea
Not all Caltech pranks involve complex electronics or months of planning. Some involve brute force and a good sense of humor. That was the case when, in 1998, graduate and undergraduate students combined forces to change the seating arrangements outside the Red Door Café. The toilets in the North Catalina graduate student apartments had just been replaced with new, low-flow units, and the older ones were awaiting disposal in a lot — a rare opportunity indeed. Twenty volunteers, much heavy lifting, and one long night later, the crew had removed the 76 chairs in the outdoor eating area and replaced them with lovely, porcelain models.