Copyright ©2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Up the coast and inland a little there's something missing from the campus of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, something big. A cannon, which sat in front of the Fleming student house, has been stolen and it's turned up thousands of miles away at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Seems a group of MIT students, armed with a rental truck, a forklift and fake moving company documents, were able to get away with the 130 year old piece of artillery. All of that sounds very familiar to David Somers. He's now an assistant professor of psychology at Boston University, but he was once a prankster at California's Harvey Mudd College.

Mr. SOMERS: Twenty years ago 11 of us at Harvey Mudd College road off to CalTech early in the morning and with a forklift and a flatbed truck and some forged work orders, posed as a moving crew and lifted the cannon from the CalTech campus and drove it back to our campus sort of fooling everybody along the way.

BLOCK: Now this thing is what, like 1.7 tons, something like that?

Mr. SOMERS: Yeah, it's not just stealing the goat from another college, this is an antique that's more than 100 years old that weighs more than 2 tons so it is an engineering project in itself just to move this thing without breaking it. Past efforts, the weight of the cannon had broken off the axel on a flatbed truck. I believe on this effort they broke off the bumper on their rented U-Haul. It's quite a massive piece of artillery.

BLOCK: And what you're saying, somebody had tried to take it before you and had failed?

Mr. SOMERS: It had been tried at Harvey Mudd for at least a decade before we pulled it off.

BLOCK: I see, this is like the holy grail of college pranks?

Mr. SOMERS: Indeed.

BLOCK: Were there moments when you were involved in your undergraduate caper when you thought, gee, we're just not gonna get this thing. It's bigger than all of us?

Mr. SOMERS: Well, when campus security approached us and said what are you doing? We were a bit concerned. Of course, a good prank is like a good engineering project, you've gotta prepare for all the contingencies and the success of the prank really depends on how well you've planned and how well you've taken care of the details, so in our case, we had forged work orders and sort of managed to convince campus security that we really belonged there and that the work orders were valid and we were doing what we were supposed to be doing.

A good prank also has a lot of social psychology involved, with our prank we brought students along to pose as CalTech students, so people would stop and look and say, gee, are they supposed to be taking the cannon? And then our decoy students would look up and pretend like nothing was wrong and they would sort of get their social cues and go, okay, well I guess this is all okay and they would walk on.

BLOCK: Well it sounds like the pranksters from MIT took a page directly from your book. They had phony work orders, their company was called How and Ser Moving Company. Howser if you put it together and they were confronted I guess by police at CalTech and gave them these work orders and off they went with the cannon.

Mr. SOMERS: Yeah they copied each of the little pieces that we did, the flatbed truck, the forklift, the forged work orders as a moving company and they put all that together, so doing it on the 20th anniversary of our prank was, you know, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I'm feeling very flattered.

BLOCK: You spoken with some of the pranksters from MIT?

Mr. SOMERS: I did have a chance to speak with a couple of them and I think that they want to sort of lie low over this. I know that CalTech has filed grand theft charges so there may be some legal ramifications. In the world of pranks I think you have to be able to take it as well as you dish it out and I think MIT was pranked by CalTech a year ago and I think they took that pretty well, sort of said, okay you got us and then immediately began planning the retaliation which they accomplished this week.

I think the MIT students' opinion is, look CalTech, you were dumb enough to fall for the same prank twice, so I think repeating a prank sort of had that extra slap in the face appeal that is always nice in a college rivalry.

BLOCK: Well David Somers, it's good of you to talk with us, thanks very much.

Mr. SOMERS: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's former cannon stealer David Somers who's now a professor of psychology at Boston University. A spokeswoman for CalTech says of the cannon, we want it back.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.