Retrotechtacular: Max Headroom Takes Chicago In Audacious TV Hack

Those of you with long memories and a compulsive TV viewing habit might remember [Max Headroom], a quirky piece of TV ephemera from the late 1980s and early 1990s. [Max] was a supposedly computer generated TV show host and VJ with a pseudomechanical stutter, a slightly blocky rendered head, and a moving background of rendered lines. He looks a little quaint for viewers with a few decades viewing experience of CGI, but in his day he was cutting-edge cypberpunk TV.

He also made unscheduled showings on two Chicago TV stations in an audacious hack that has never been explained and whose culprit has never been found.

The real [Max Headroom] (Fair use) Via Wikimedia commons.
The real [Max Headroom] (Fair use) Via Wikimedia Commons.
If you were a bored British teenager and future Hackaday writer vegging out in front of your parents’ TV on an April night in 1985, you’d have caught [Max]’s genesis. He strung upon us by rising out of a title screen full of static in the Channel 4 TV movie [Max Headroom]: 20 Minutes into the Future.

The plot is a trip in itself. An investigative journalist seeking to uncover the sinister owners of his network (they run speeded-up adverts with the unfortunate side-effect of causing overweight viewers to explode) is pursued, causing a road accident in which he is injured by a collision with a safety barrier. Hence the name: [Max Headroom]. The network try to cover it up by producing a computerized facsimilie of the reporter which turns out to be an embarassing failure. They scrap the computer and it falls into the hands of a pirate TV station operating from a decrepit campervan, the Alphabetti-eating proprietor of which turns the character it contains into a TV sensation. Meanwhile the reporter escapes, recovers, and prevails over the villains.

The [Max] character proved to be something of a hit, with a TV spin-off series, VJing, adverts, and more. But that wasn’t the whole story of his appearances, back to that unexplained hack of Chicagoland TV.

The Chicago fake [Max Headroom].
The Chicago fake [Max Headroom].
On the night of the 22nd of November 1987, viewers of WGN were watching a sports program when the screen went blank and they were treated to a few seconds of a slightly home-made [Max Headroom] dancing in front of  those trademark moving lines. A couple of hours later on WTTW a rerun of a [Doctor Who] episode was again interrupted with the same fake [Max], this time speaking for a while before, if his performance wasn’t already bizarre enough, being spanked by a woman whose face is off camera.

As a piece of television history it’s an intriguing mystery, though since so little is known about the mechanism through which it was achieved it hasn’t achieved the notoriety in the technical world that you might expect. The stations involved conducted full investigations at the time and failed to locate a culprit, perhaps they should have been looking for that old campervan with the antennae on its roof.

It is very unlikely that a similar stunt could be performed today, with entirely digital TV studios and easy access to encryption technologies for external links to transmitter sites. But in the 1980s a studio would still have been an analogue affair so there would have been more opportunities to insert an unauthorized feed. Next year sees the 30th anniversary of the event, it would be fascinating if the perpetrator would mark it by anonymously revealing how it was achieved. Of course, we’d love to hear how you would have done it in the comments below. Surely we have readers who are intimately familiar with the television broadcasting equipment of the time.

Below the break we’re showing you both fake [Max] intrusions into the Chicago airwaves. First is the short outing on EGN, below that the longer one on WTTV.

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How a Muslim Immigrant from Bangladesh Became America’s Master Builder

If the United States has a national architectural form, it is the skyscraper. The notion of building a tower to the heavens is as old as Genesis, but it took some brash 19th century Americans to develop that fanciful idea into tangible, profitable buildings. Although we dressed up our early skyscrapers in Old World styles (the Met Life Tower as an Italian campanile, the Woolworth Building as a French Gothic cathedral), most foreigners agreed that the skyscraper suited only our misfit nation. For decades, Americans were alone in building them. Even those European modernists who dreamed of gleaming towers along Friedrichstraße and Boulevard de Sébastopol had to cross the Atlantic for a chance to act on their ambitions. By the start of World War II, 147 of the 150 tallest habitable buildings on the planet were located in the United States. 

No building style better represented America’s industriousness, monomaniacal greed, disregard of tradition, and eagerness to attempt feats that more established cultures considered obscene. And while those indelicate traits prompted Americans to develop the skyscraper, it was our openness and multiculturalism that brought us our greatest skyscraper builder: a Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant named Fazlur Rahman Khan.

Khan was born on April 3rd, 1929 in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Dacca, British India at the time). His father, a mathematics instructor, cultivated young Fazlur’s interest in technical subjects and encouraged him to pursue a degree at Calcutta’s Bengal Engineering College. He excelled in his studies there and, after graduating, won a Fulbright Scholarship that brought him to the University of Illinois. In the United States, Khan studied structural engineering and engineering mechanics, earning two master’s degrees and a PhD in just three years. After a detour in Pakistan, Khan returned to the United States and was hired as an engineer in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), one of the most prominent architecture and engineering firms in the world.

Though he was born in a nation with no history of highrise construction, Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan had worked his way to a position where he would revolutionize the field of structural engineering and build America’s proudest landmarks.

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Crazy Whirlwind Pre-Hackaday Prize Launch Tour

The Hackaday Prize was about to launch but the date wasn’t public yet. I decided to do a pre-launch tour to visit a few places and to drop in on some of the Hackaday Prize Judges. It started in Chicagoland, looped through San Francisco for a hardware meetup and Hardware Con, then finished with visits to [Ben Krasnow’s] workshop, [Elecia White’s] studio, and the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories.

The Prize is now running and it’s time for you to enter. Look at some of the awesome hacking going on at the places I visited and then submit your own idea to get your entry started. Join me after the break for all the details of the adventure.

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Tour of Chicago hackerspace: Pumping Station One

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As you may know I was on vacation in Chicago last week. I got a chance to jump on the blue line train from Chicago’s downtown loop for a short trip out to the Addison stop where I caught a quick bus ride over to one of Chicago’s hackerspaces: Pumping Station One. I was given a tour by some camera-shy members that were there when I popped in. The space had a large welding area with lots of equipment, metal lathes, metal brake and woodworking equipment. You name the shop tool, I think it was there. I even think I spotted a functioning scanning electron microscope! WOW!

The lower workspace was quite extensive. Yes, there’s a second-floor having sewing machines, vinyl cutters, 3-D printers and an entire room dedicated to electronics and robotics. Also, they are in the process of expanding to make the space even larger. If you’re in Chicago I recommend you check them out, it’s an amazing space and an easy commute from downtown.

I hope my iPhone video is good enough to show off their splendid space.
Follow along after the break to learn more and get a glimpse inside Pumping Station One.

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GE Garage and Chicago Ideas Week

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I’ve been on vacation and managed to get a day to play at the GE Garage mobile fab lab currently setup in downtown Chicago. GE has partnered with Chicago Ideas Week to bring the future of fabrication technologies to a space where the community can walk in off the street and work with some amazing hardware like CNC mills, laser cutters and 3D printers. The group is also giving classes at select times on using the equipment and general electrics. Unfortunately I was in town near the end of this event which will be Oct 20th. If you are in the area I do recommend jumping on the excellent transportation you’ll find in Chicago and have some fun at the space. Here are more details on location, classes and times.

I didn’t expect to squeeze any work into my vacation but I did take a guided tour of the fab space with my iPhone 5s.  You can join me after the break to watch the tour, which is a bit rough but still covers a lot of fun topics. Get at look at their line-up or Replicator 2 3D printers. See some fantastic prints from metal made on industrial scale printers. Learn more about the up-scaled CNC seen above that was cutting out skateboard decks. And finish up with an injection molding machine.

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Hackerspace Intro: Workshop 88

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If you find yourself in the West suburbs of Chicago, IL with nothing to do you should head over to Workshop 88. [Andrew Morrison] shot some video at the last public meeting which includes a tour of the facilities. We’ve embedded it after the jump for your convenience.

The clip isn’t so much a tour as it is a POV experience. There’s no narrative and the people at the meeting seem to be oblivious that anyone’s recording video. This makes for a pretty interesting presentation, starting with a little rubbernecking at the projects being shown off at the meeting. From there we pass by a couple of members pulling a wire run through the ceiling of the machine shop. Next we see the electronics lab complete with a Makerbot and a very tidy component storage wall. [Andrew] makes a quick trip through the small music studio before heading back to the main room at the close of the segment.

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