05.13.2016
culture

Strange History: The Max Headroom Signal Intrusion

In November of 1987, long before the recording and documenting of nearly every event became ubiquitous, some unknown prankster cut into the broadcast signal of Chicago's WGN-TV and WTTW to air their own style of entertainment.

The footage, now in the video above, featured a person wearing a Max Headroom mask spouting odd one-liners about the political affiliation of Chicago Bulls radio announcer Chuck Swirsky, soda slogans, and Clutch Cargo references, all before an awkward fly-swatting of the protagonist's ass. 

For 1987, the incident was unparalleled. Nearly two years earlier, an employee of Central Florida Teleport had overridden HBO's signal to broadcast a message protesting the cable service's price hikes. That breech was simply text over color bars, and the culprit, Captain Midnight, was easily sussed out. But a hack of actual footage was unique. For the late-night viewers of local Chicago television that night, it must have been some truly befuddling fucking surprise. 

Three years ago, near the 26th anniversary of the hack, Chris Knittel wrote a truly wonderful deep-dive into the incident for Motherboard:

At 9:16 PM, just after the faux Max intruded on WGN's signal, technicians there, suspecting an inside job, began scouring the building for a possible assailant. But Max wasn't there. And he wasn't finished.

Almost exactly two hours later, at around 11:15 PM, Channel 11, the PBS affiliate WTTW, was airing an episode of Dr. Who called "The Horror of Fang Rock" when a gargle of static cut in. Scan lines, indicating the beginning of a VHS recording, flashed across the screen. Unlike the previous thirty-second hacking, this one had audio, just barely coherent amid the whirr of distortion. It lasted for one minute and twenty-two seconds.

The article goes on to discuss other hacks of similar nature, how it could have been pulled off, the working theories, and reporting on people who know the few suspects or suspected possibilities. The mystery of who was behind the Max mask remains intact. The quirky, so-very-'80s style of pre-digital hacking is a sweet, sweet nugget of a very weird time now long gone and soon to be forgotten. Thanks, Max. 

Make sure to check out the Motherboard article for footage of the hack actually taking place, data on how the incident likely occurred, and FOIA retrieved documents on the FBI's investigation into the microwave jamming. 

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