1. The Barber Pole Caper
It seems that once upon a time, a Caltech student coveted a handsome spiraling barber pole
in Pasadena, and pilfered it to decorate his own room.
Before he could make it back to campus, however, the Pasadena police
happened upon him and promptly arrested him. He
was made to pay for the supposedly ruined pole, and, in a flash of inspiration, the
disgruntled student demanded a receipt. Next, he called together his fellows Techies, and
he related his plan. The pole was given to
another student to lug down a main street, and he was, of course, apprehended by the alert
lawmen. Producing a receipt, he was
reluctantly released, whereupon he handed the pole over to another student who paraded the
pole in another part of town, was arrested, showed the receipt, and was released. The
scene was repeated over and over during the course of the day, until the frustrated police
issued a bulletin not to stop any Caltech students with barber poles. Naturally, the students immediately swarmed over
Pasadena, boldly pilfering every barber pole in sight, free of any possible legal
2. Arresting Behavior
The students also periodically conducted contests they called Arrest-a-thons, in which the
usually slightly scruffy students would walk down the broad avenues of the nearby wealthy
suburb of San Marino, and compete to see who could be stopped by the suspicious police
The residents of San Marino were also not exempt from Caltech pranks. A favored ploy at one time was for a student to
knock on the door of one of the mansions and ask to use the bathroom. The wealthy residents would reluctantly agree,
whereupon the student would lock himself in the bathroom and take a long, luxurious bath,
confident in the knowledge that he had, indeed, asked and been given permission to use the
4. Gone With the Wind
An officious administrator, Mrs.
A (not her real initial), who berated students very publically for daring to park in her
treasured parking space. Bright one
California morning, Mrs. A wheeled into the parking lot and discovered to her profound
puzzlement that her parking slot had defied all laws of space and time and vanished. It seems that in the dead of night, when Caltech
students do their best work, a group had sneaked onto the parking lot, erased all the
lines, and repainted them farther enough apart to eliminate her space. They had even removed her named marker,
obliterating all trace of her precious parking perk.
(Students have been known to do the same to fellow students' rooms, making
them disappear by walling over the door, and one time even installing a working wall
sconce to complete the disguise.)
5. The Green Team
There was the time that the students complained that the traffic light at a crosswalk on a
busily traveled California Boulevard did not stay red long enough for students to
conveniently cross on their way to class. After
their complaints went unheeded, the students launched a nocturnal reengineering foray, and
the next day, the traffic light suddenly began to operate in the pedestrians' favor. With a long line of angry motorists growing even
longer, the traffic light engineers arrived and set to work to right the problem. But try as they could, the puzzled technicians
could find nothing wrong with the light's timing mechanism.
They labored long and hard to solve the problem, until one of them finally
noticed that the students had simply climbed up and switched the red and green lenses.
writes to correct our facts: "Instead it was decided to cross the wire
harnesses which were connected at one point with simple AMP plugs. Thus the
lines that had previously run to the N/S lights now ran to the E/W lights,
and visa versa." It was felt that changing the lenses might actually lead to
an accident, and the Techies knew that would, indeed, be a very bad prank.
6. Sartre's No Exit
There was the time that the students noticed that quite a bit of road construction was
going on around town, with the consequent annoying detours.
The students decided to experiment a bit with the traffic patterns and
drivers' gullibility, and after some careful route mapping, launched a nighttime mission
in which they rearranged the detour barriers to route nearly all traffic in the area into
a Caltech parking lot, from which there was no outlet.
Pleased with their experimental parameters, the students settled back and
watched as a stream of confused motorists filled the parking lot with cars constantly
circling to find a way out. Their prank was
discovered only when they finally "captured" a police car.
7. Cantaloupe, Oranges, and Other
"Incoming cantaloupe" was a phrase I never thought I would hear uttered, but it
was spoken to me one day by a very polite student who was requesting that I step off the
sidewalk leading to the faculty club. I did
as requested and shortly, arcing out of the sky and landing with a magnificent splat, came
a juicy cantaloupe. The students had been
test-firing the latest of their giant slingshots -- this one mounted on top of the
six-story library -- with which they had been known to rain fruity havoc on the
surrounding neighborhoods. The most infamous
such fusillade came when they set about to launch oranges at Pasadena City College about a
mile away. The students were not wasting
fruit, for the campus trees that provided their ammunition were known to yield
particularly bitter fruit well-worth disposing of by air freight. So, every day around noon, numerous oranges would
splatter onto the City College quad, with the campus police being convinced that the
campus was being bombarded from an overflying plane.
The jig was finally up, however, when the cops spotted a Caltech student
hiding in bushes with a walkie-talkie, feeding his slingshot-manning comrades coordinates
and launch signals, so the oranges would land safely and with maximum spectacle.
8. Winning Performance
This electronic hijacking took place late in a Rose Bowl game between the Universities of
Washington and Illinois, during a rather dull game.
The 100,000 or so spectators suddenly realized that the team names on the
electronic scoreboard had changed to Caltech and MIT, with the ersatz score showing
Caltech comfortably in the lead, of course. And,
the crowd witnessed an animated beaver scurrying across the bottom of the display. Of course, the prank received national attention,
and the students were apprehended when they gave media interviews. The prank became something of an embarrassment
when it was discovered that the student had designed the control system as part of an
engineering course, although the faculty member had not been told that the laptop-powered
"display control system" was to be used on one of the most visible displays in
the world. There only regret: they had also
rigged a tape recorder to play the Caltech theme song "Ride of the Valkyries"
over the public address system, but the volume had been set too low for the muscial
accompaniment to be heard. (The Caltech
students seem to have a penchant for fiddling with signs, once also having reworked the
Hollywood sign to read Caltech.) See more pranks at:
It's also comforting to know that the pranks are the students' way of flexing their
intellectual muscles, in preparation for the key roles they will no doubt play in
inventing the 21st century. (The best collections of Caltech pranks are two books, Legends
of Caltech and More Legends of Caltech, available through the
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