History of the Cannon
Dating back to the 1870s, the cannon was originally cast for use in the Franco-Prussian War. It was not completed until 1878, well after the war’s conclusion. The French gave the cannon to the United States, who rebuilt it to fit US artillary shells. The re-boring of the barrel and construction of the carriage was not completed until 1896, too late for the cannon to be used even in the Spanish-American War. The United States shipped the cannon to Santa Barbara, but it quickly became obsolete and was returned to the French. The French had no need for an outdated cannon that needed seventeen horses to pull it and had a range of only two miles, so they gave it to Maurice Veronda, founder of Southwestern Academy in San Marino, CA. The cannon graced the front lawn of the Academy from 1925 until 1972.
By the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the cannon had fallen into disrepair and been the subject of annual senior pranks by students from the nearby San Marino High School. Meanwhile, Southwestern Academy was prepared to shed its military image and distance itself from the Vietnam issue. Members of Fleming saw an opportunity and were up to the challenge. The cannon’s century-old wheels were embedded in concrete and in no shape to transport the cannon, so the Flems chipped away at the concrete, freed the wheels, and took them back to Caltech for reinforcement. The wheels were later brought back and reattached to the cannon.
At 1:00am in the early morning of October 8, 1972, eighty Flems dressed in black made their way to Southwestern Academy, with transport planned for 3:00am. A pre-made dolly was slipped under the tongue of the cannon, and pulling ropes secured. As quietly as possible, the Flems tested the cannon’s mobility, eased it onto the street, and raced to push the cannon three blocks to the Pasadena city limits while avoiding the San Marino police. Once safely in Pasadena, the cannon still had to be pushed three miles to its new resting place on the Olive Walk in front of Fleming House.
Flems immediately began the restoration process. They stripped off over thirty-five layers of paint (a result of the San Marino pranks) and re-exposed the original barrel. The firing mechanism was restored and the carriage was painted a brilliant red – Fleming’s house color. During the restoration, Flems experienced some minor struggles with administration: campus security quickly issued a ticket for illegally parking a cannon on the Olive Walk, and school officials drew up a list of forbidden projectiles as Flems researched the operation of a vintage French cannon.
In 1975, Caltech officials ordered that the cannon be returned to Southwestern Academy. Articles from the time give different reports as to the reason for this order-- some cite an overzealous Fleming reaction to a prank by Lloyd House, others mention other mischevious incidents. According to these sources, Flems eager to test the cannon’s firing power loaded it with extra gunpowder and fired a lowered muzzle towards their neighbor Page House, shattering two glass doors and several windows. Some sources even claim that glass was also blown out of the office of the Master of Student Housing. So, on January 17, 1975, the cannon was loaded onto a flat bed truck and sent back to Southwestern.
Flems re-initiated contact in late 1980 with Southwestern administrators. This set off a six-month negotiation and planning process that culminated in the return of the cannon to Caltech in early 1981. On February 7 of that year, six years after the cannon’s departure, various cars and trucks ferried a total of seventy-eight Flems back to the cannon’s weedy resting spot to reenact the transfer as it had occurred eight years prior.
Unlike the first transfer, this affair was carried out with considerably less stealth, with pomp and circumstance marking the three mile trek. Motorists stopped to stare, and the occasional police escort ensured that all was moving in an orderly fashion. As the cannon neared the Olive Walk, the processional was swallowed up in furious bell-ringing and an enthusiastic chorus.
For the next 5 years, the cannon sat relatively peacefully outside Fleming House. While it was naturally subject to minor interhouse pranks, none were significant enough to stand the test of time. In the meantime, the students of Harvey Mudd had been attempting to steal the cannon ever since Fleming had acquired it. Their multiple attempts to steal the cannon were thwarted by equipment malfunction or by members of Fleming. In 1986, however, the Mudders finally got the heist right.
The Mudders descended onto Caltech campus on Saturday, March 29, 1986. Armed with the knowledge that most Flems would be off on a ski trip, Mudders plotted to steal the cannon in broad daylight. They dressed in work clothes and told security that they were taking the barrel to be polished. To the Caltech students who weren't likely to be as easily fooled, they claimed to be simply moving the cannon to get access to a water pipe. Both parties bought their respective stories and before anyone noticed, the cannon was on a flat truck bound for Harvey Mudd.
The cannon was greeted with great celebration. The Harvey Mudd newspaper that week was triumphantly headlined “Victory”. Naturally, Flems attempted to get the cannon back, but were unsuccessful-- the Mudders had the cannon under twenty-four hour guard in the middle of a residential area. After the cannon spent over a month on Harvey Mudd’s campus, the administrations of both school stepped. The Mudders gift wrapped the cannon, watched it load onto a truck, and then sent it back to Caltech.
For the past twenty years, the cannon has been fired about six times a year. The cannon fires at the end of every term, as well as the end of rotation, ditch day, and at the time that the graduating Fleming president receives his diploma. Between the 1986 heist and March 28, 2006, the cannon never left Caltech campus.