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No Joke: MIT Exhibit of Practical Jokes Opens ... on April Fool’s Day

April 1, 1991

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ For more than 100 years, the budding Einsteins at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have elevated the practical joke to an art form.

From cows perched atop domes to an exploding weather balloon filled with talcum powder, the students at this august university have prided themselves on showing off their smarts in entertaining ways.

Now the silly stunts are in a museum exhibit that opened, naturally, on April Fools’ Day. ″Crazy After Calculus: Humor at MIT″ chronicles some of the zaniest, trickiest pranks ever put on at the school.

A replica of the massive weather balloon filled with powder sits behind glass in the exhibit. MIT students who had buried the balloon and air pump under Harvard University’s football stadium blew up the contraption during a break in the 1982 Harvard-Yale game.

In the center of the exhibit stands a life-size cow, complete with mortarboard, to commemorate the 1979 ″borrowing″ of a fiberglass cow that normally stands like a landmark outside a nearby steak restaurant. The borrowed steer, named ″Ferdi,″ stood atop MIT’s Great Dome, above the engineering library, until a crane was brought in to remove it.

Cows and the Great Dome are two common themes in MIT pranks, dubbed hacks because they involve a mastery of wit and often an engineering technique, said curator Joan Loria.

In 1928, students brought the real thing up five flights of stairs, putting the cow on a dormitory roof. The group had trouble removing it because ″cows don’t like walking down stairs,″ Loria said.

MIT has a rich tradition of pranks.

Back in 1876, John Freeman sprinkled iodide of nitrogen, a mild explosive, on the floor just before a student assembly began. Cartoons, creative signs, telephone rewiring and statue remodeling have become commonplace at MIT.

Photos at the exhibit show every conceivable twist on the age-old trick of ″pennying″ a dorm room to trap students inside. Among the devices that were used to block the doors were beer cans, bricks and ropes.

Perhaps the most enduring stunt involved Oliver Smoot, class of ’62. Flipping Smoot over head to toe all the way across a bridge that spans the Charles River, the young man’s fraternity brothers invented the ″Smoot″ unit of measurement. Photos in the museum show two young men grabbing Smoot under the armpits as they flipped him onto his stomach.

That was in 1958 and when construction workers rebuilt the bridge, Smoot was brought in for new demarcation. The rebuilt bridge, which spans the Charles River, measured 364.4 Smoots, plus an ear.

Humor at MIT is not just a laughing matter, but is also injected into studies.

The new exhibit, and an accompanying 168-page book, are just the latest examples of how the university makes learning fun despite its heavy emphasis on science and math.

During the school’s month-long Independent Activities Period, students can choose courses such as concrete canoe construction and the sports dynamic of batting a ball. There’s even the annual paper airplane contest.

Officials actually encourage the jokes, saying it’s a natural release at a pressure-cooker environment like MIT.

″If you don’t look at this place with a sense of humor it could be deadly,″ said Warren Seamans, museum director.

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