The Great Breast of Knowledge

by Phil Kesten

Okay, and now you get the WHOLE STORY about the Great Breast of Knowledge. For a photo, see the February, 1980 issue of Playboy...

The idea that the Great Dome somewhat resembled a female breast was suggested to Brian Armstrong, then an MIT junior, around Christmas, 1978. It was over the next IAP that Brian, a sharp MechE type with an eye for trouble, began to evolve a plan to help those with less imagination see the dome in this new light. Brian recruited a few of us, and B.O.O.B.S. - the Burton One Outdoor Breast Society - was born!

The final "assault team," wearing Mamma Maxima Scientiae t-shirts. (They look like IHTFP shirts, with the screw replaced by...) Back row, left to right: Phil Kesten, Neil Lippman, Mike Brody, Karlis Musa, Dave Kaus, Seth Marder. Front row, left to right: Dave Escott, Brian Armstrong, Lorenzo Sadun.

The first plan was simple and rather crude. We would construct a gigantic nipple and aureole, and hoist both to the top of the dome in the middle of the night. Even at first, it was clear that this was not to be an ordinary hack - we started by reviewing blueprints of the building, and then making some measurements, to determine the appropriate size of both the nipple and the aureole (which we called the "pink"), so that the final "breast" would have proper proportions. This done, we began construction, and organized some recognizance missions to explore ways of getting to the top of the Great Dome.

Most of us had been on the Building 7 dome, but while we had heard that it was possible to climb the Great Dome, no one we knew had ever been up there. There were rumors of a small window leading to a parapet surrounding the dome, from which it might be possible to climb a ladder to the dome itself. Our first exploration yielded a major discovery - a small door on the eighth floor of the Barker Library led into a crawl space, which led to the elevator control room, which had a window... onto the parapet! Out we went, of course, but it was easily fifteen feet straight up, and the lip of the dome stuck out two feet or more. Although we didn't make it to the top that night, success was clearly within our grasp.

Our earliest visits to the dome - including one in a snow storm! - involved waiting in the library, and then another long wait in the machinery area near the top of the elevators. Compared to the thrill of being on the dome, this was, simply, boring, and dangerous besides. Now we had of course considered the ease with which the elevators could carry us to the eighth floor, but on first glance it appeared not so easy. There are two elevators in Building 10. One, which runs 24 hours a day, is physically prevented from going past the fifth floor, that is, it cannot travel inside the library. The other elevator, which can be switched (with a special key) to allow it to travel all the way up, is shut down each night at 11. Only the first elevator, then, was available to us. How could we use it to get into the library? No one remembers for sure who figured it out, but it was probably Brian. We went immediately to test the theory.

Five of us - Karlis Musa, Dave Escott, Lorenzo Sadun, Brian, and I - got in the working elevator, around three in the morning. We drove it to a point between the fourth and fifth floors, stopping it with the emergency stop. No alarms were set off by this! We pried open the elevator car door, and there, about shoulder height, was the control box for the door leading from the elevator shaft to the fourth floor. A rubber band was sufficient to hold the latch in the open position, and a wire with alligator clips on the ends easily bypassed the door alarm. (This alarm normally goes off if the shaft door is opened without the elevator car present.) We then dropped back to the third floor, Brian and I ran up to four, opened the now-unlatched and un-alarmed shaft door, and stepped onto the ROOF of the elevator car. After our companions drove the car up to the fifth floor - as high as it could go - Brian and I were facing the sixth floor door! Another wire to bypass the alarm, and then Brian and I simply walked into the sixth floor of Barker Library. Who would have ever thought?! From there is was no less difficult - we merely had to bypass the alarm on the doors at the entrance to the library, and the whole group was in. Late-night library access had become simple!

At the same time the dome-access research was proceeding, we designed and built the nipple. Our plan was to send a crew up to the dome, tie in a pulley system, and then hoist the nipple up from the ground. A pre-fab nipple was fine for this, so we constructed a frame from 2x4's, in the right shape and proportions - about eight feet high and ten feet across - and covered it with construction paper attached to chicken wire, to help keep the shape. The paper was painted pink, naturally. The "pink" was made from the same paper. While it didn't look perfect - the photo from the Tech, with the nipple on top of my car, will attest to that! - we figured that from a distance it would do just fine.

By the end of IAP, the nipple was finished. We had all the ropes and equipment we would need to hoist it up, and a plan to make it work. Some twenty members of Burton One, along with a few friends, were involved with the project, and on the appointed night we set off with great anticipation. I was in the "top" crew, and we ascended the dome like professionals. The other crews moved into position on the ground, and in came the nipple, riding on the top of my little Toyota Corona. We were set - well, except for one minor oversight. No one had realized that our selected point of transferring the nipple to the ropes was near a bank of vending machines inside the building, and the campus police happened to take notice of the area. Those of us on the top got the bad news via walkie-talkie - we had been nabbed! Clearly a better plan was in order!

After "Nipple I", we realized that much more planning and preparation was needed to pull the hack off successfully. First, we began regular practice sessions. Some weekends we went out to Hammond Park to work on climbing, since we would have to climb up a rope ladder hanging at a backwards angle, or rappelling, which we would need to get down in case of "emergency". (Like if we got caught.) On other occasions, we went over to a fraternity in Boston, where we had some friends, and practiced transferring the nipple from the car to the ropes, and hoisting it up to the roof. During this time we also took on some new people, and acquired a set of three channel walkie-talkies, as well as a big radio to use as a base. To pay for all of this, by the way, we did a little fund-raising in the dorm. Most people were enthusiastic, but some, as it turned out, were not. Anyway, by the middle of March, we had a crack team of thirty or so, ready to go!

We met on the big night, in a classroom in the ROTC building, to go over the plan one more time. We would deploy five crews of six men, one to the top of the dome, one to the roof of Building 10, below the dome, and three on the ground. The top crew would, as before, set up the pulleys. The roof crew and one of the ground crews would hold guide ropes to keep the nipple from hitting the building. The other ground crews would then hoist the nipple up, and the top crew would take it from there. We had our base camp set up in Burton, where the nipple sat ready, and look-outs at strategic points along the route and near Building 10. It was so totally cool that even we were amazed we were doing it!

Well, we learned three valuable lessons that night. First, never assume that you've taken everything into account. The night we selected was the night of the week that a cleaning woman came into Barker Library. She saw us as we went up the internal library stairs, and we saw her. Naturally she called the campus police. That's when we learned the second lesson: hesitation is a killer! Always have a backup plan ready, so that there is never a moment of indecision. The few minutes we wasted in the machinery area, trying to decide if we should haul butt, sealed our fate: the campus police were there to meet us when we came back down. Luckily, we didn't have the heavy equipment showing, so we were able to convince them we were just out for a little fun. They let us go, and back we trudged to the ROTC building, to meet up with everyone else. Our luck: a campus policeman had noticed an inordinate number of people accumulating there, for such a late hour, and had decided to see if anything would happen. We, in fact, had noticed him too, and when he decided to start running towards the building, we learned lesson number three. Never act suspicious! We all ran like idiots, in all directions, and within seconds, campus patrol cars were careening around the corner! The incident in the library was pretty innocuous, but getting caught with all the ropes and high-powered walkie-talkies was not. We had to see the chief of the campus patrol in the morning. Luckily, Chief Oliveri was a pretty nice guy, and he let us off with merely a lecture.

Okay, we had learned our lessons well. We rescheduled for a few weeks later, and went over our plan in painstaking detail. We could not have been better prepared. The night of Nipple III arrived with great anticipation. We proceeded to library with no problems, and right up to the dome. The other crews checked off over the radio. We set to work, and by five a.m., everything was in place. In drove the nipple - what a sight from the top of the dome! It was all happening just as planned, when suddenly Massimo DeNadai, one of the look-outs, came running into the courtyard below us, yelling "We're busted! We're busted!" In hindsight, perhaps we took too long on the dome, but we found out later that someone had called in a "burglary" to campus patrol. Rumors in the dorm were that we had been sabotaged by someone from another floor. Anyway, we at least had an escape plan, and it swung into action.

The roof and ground crews simply scattered. Of prime importance was to protect the top crew, and all the equipment we had. But as I said, we had a plan, so no worry. We very calmly gathered all the ropes and other equipment, packed it into backpacks, and rappelled off the dome to the roof of Building 13. We were all already wearing harnesses, and we had gloves to allow maximum speed during descent. Building 13 does not have a single door leading to the roof, so from there, we were to drop down to the roof of the bridge which connects Building 13 to Building 9. (The connecting bridge is one story shorter than Building 13.) Earlier in the day we had unlocked a window in Building 13 overlooking the roof of the bridge, through which we would escape. We looped a rope around a vent and climbed down the ten-foot drop. Unfortunately for us, however, the rope got caught on the vent. Worse, the rope belonged to the MIT Outing Club, so we couldn't just ditch it. As we struggled to get it free, a campus patrolman on the ground noticed us, and before long a small crowd of them had gathered. Everyone in the group, except for Brian and I, took off through the window. We had some luck though - our "Hoist Control Leader", Geoff Pingree, had stayed on the roof to watch our descent from the dome. When he saw the rope get tangled he moved into a position on Building 9, to help us untangle it.

It probably took ten minutes to free the rope, with Geoff barking commands over the walkie-talkie. During that time, three campus patrolmen appeared in the room in Building 9 that faced our narrow roof. The window was apparently locked, and they frantically and ultimately unsuccessfully searched huge rings of keys for the right one. Neither Brian nor I made reference to them, keeping our attention focused instead on the rope. We had both come to the same conclusion: if they managed to open the window, we were caught no matter what, and if not, it didn't matter that they were only six feet away! Looking back, the situation was pretty humorous! Anyway, we did finally get the rope down, then bolted through the window into Building 13 and took off down the long corridor which runs the length of the building. Halfway down, though, one of our Men in Blue came racing around the far corner. We dove into a stairway, going down three steps at a time. Down to the third floor, that is. That's where we came face to face with "Sargent Macho". He had been in on the "bust" in the library during Nipple II, and he wasn't pleased to see us again. We gave him his nickname because, as we dashed down the stairs, he held up his hand, index finger extended, thumb bent, and yelled "Stop right there!" in what was intended to be a menacing tone. He demanded ID's, and I unfortunately had none, since I was not a student at the time. That was all the Sarge needed - he twisted my arm around my back, slammed me up against a wall, and gave me a "You're under arrest, buddy!". Just like on t.v.! It happened, though, that my wallet had been stolen the week before, and I had filed a report with campus police, and that was enough to get me "unarrested". Brian and I got led outside, where almost every patrolman on the force was waiting. By then the sun was up - it was a beautiful spring morning - and Brian and I were enjoying our celebrity status. We were eventually told sternly to appear before the Chief as soon as he came in, and then we were sent on our way.

Although Brian and I were the only ones caught, the whole team went in to see Chief Oliveri. On the way in, Sargent Macho apologized for being a little rough, and told us he thought the whole thing was pretty funny. When we told the Chief, he laughed so hard that tears came to his eyes - really! - and he recounted tales of other hacks he had witnessed at MIT. After he tore up the reports on us, though, he asked us, seriously, to knock it off. He made us promise that we wouldn't try it again that semester. We agreed.

The Freshman Picnic, of course, is the beginning of a new year - and a new semester! - at MIT. There was, in addition, a tradition of hacks at the event, so it seemed the perfect time to shoot for Nipple IV. To pull it off, though, we knew we needed a much, much better plan. First, we completely redesigned the nipple, since we could not afford to hoist something up the side of the building in broad daylight. (And besides, it was clear that time - mostly for setting up the ropes and pulleys - had always been our biggest problem before.) The new nipple would be collapsible, similar to a dome tent. Six flexible rods, sewn into a cloth shell, would be inserted into a hexagonal frame at the top of the nipple. Since the rods would be fixed to the cloth, they would bend smoothly, resulting in the perfect shape. Once we had constructed this part, we added some aluminum rods, and taught wire guy lines, to make the structure rigid. One of only two really illegal acts associated with the project involved this new nipple - we "borrowed" 60 sheets from Burton House, to die pink and sew into the cloth covering. I honestly can't remember who actually took them. In addition, we completely burned out the dorm sewing machine, running it 20 hours a day for almost a week to complete the shell, and the new "pink". It was probably on its last leg anyway, though!

This work was done over the summer of 1979. At the same time, we began to develop "Elevator Technology" into a real science. Since we would be going up during the day - we intended to hit the dome just as Jerry Weisner began to speak, by the way - we could use the "other" elevator to go all the way up. It took a couple of nights of research to understand how the wiring behind the elevator panel worked. There were two keyed controls, one to allow the car to go to the eighth floor ("Special Service"), and one to cause the elevator to ignore calls from floor buttons ("Independent Mode"). Very cool!

The weeks before the picnic were filled with frenetic activity.

Members of the final "assault team" practicing on the roof of Burton House.

We practiced the nipple set-up procedure over and over, against a stopwatch.

Assembling the collapsable nipple. A precisely defined sequence allowed us to get the total assembly time under 90 seconds.

We continued to go to Hammond Park to work on our climbing technique, and we of course worked furiously on the nipple, the "pink", and the banner we would hang after the breast was up. We did this all in secret, however, having learned in the spring that not everyone can be trusted, even with such a great hack as ours. With long faces, we told everyone that the project had been called off. We hid all our supplies. By the week before the picnic, it seemed the whole dorm had heard, and that was fine by us. There were eight of us left in the project by then: Mike Brody, Lorenzo Sadun, Dave Escott, Karlis Musa, Dave Kaus , Seth Marter, Brian, and I.

Thursday night before the picnic, we packed all the gear, rolled the nipple up inside a white sheet, and loaded in into Brian's car. We wanted to stash it in the machinery space, to avoid having to haul it all up the next day. Wouldn't you know it, but who should drive by, just as we're ready to leave, but Sargent Macho. He of course recognized us ("Hey, you're the guys who keep trying to put stuff on the dome!"), and didn't go for Brian's great ad-lib that the large roll in the back seat was a sign to direct freshman to the proper food lines at the picnic. He was fairly cool, though, telling us that we shouldn't really try anything, because security was tight and the patrol was on alert for dome hacks. We were committed, however, and just decided to pretend it didn't happen. It was do or die, as far as we were concerned.

Friday arrived a clear, bright, beautiful day. We ran around like crazy, making last minute preparations - a rope had been lost, we couldn't find all the alligator clips we needed, that kind of thing. At 4:30, we set out: Brian, Mike, and I, with no gear, Karlis with the rope and tools, and Dave, Dave, and Lorenzo with everything else. We had procured a chemistry cart for the nipple, etc., and Dave, Dave, and Lorenzo wore lab coats to look inconspicuous. We regrouped on the third floor of Building 10, secured the "8" elevator, and hurriedly packed ourselves and our gear inside. Working at a furious pace, we pulled the panel, and patched into "Special Service". This, it turned out, was a mistake - due to the order in which we had always worked the patches, we didn't realize that "Special Service" didn't override floor calls. So before Brian had kicked in "Independent Mode", we managed to stop on the fourth floor (no people), the fifth floor (lots of people), the fifth floor (again! - nervous laughter all around), and finally the fourth floor again, where a campus policeman was now waiting for the elevator. He couldn't see that that panel was pulled, though, and that there were wires hanging all over from it, so when he smiled and said "Kind of crowded in there!". We smiled, and prayed for Brian to get the door to close! And close it did, and off we went to the dome!

Into action! First step, to bar all the doors that led into the machinery space, by wedging 2x4's behind them. I went to the right-side library door, where I was surprised to see an iron bar already jamming the door. The situation soon became clear - a group from Jack Florey was going to hang a banner. After some debate, we convinced them that our project was just a tad more important. They had heard of us, which helped, and they agreed to stay out of our way. We worried that perhaps they might split into the library, or worse, take our elevator (which we had secured on the eighth floor for our escape later on). Though they were pretty ticked off, they turned out to be fairly reasonable, and did neither. We were told that the Jack Florey banner eventually got up.

In order to save time, we had decided to commit another minor illegality, the second of the project. There was a ladder stored in the machinery space, tall enough to reach the dome. We had never used it before because it was chained down, but on that afternoon, we decided to take it anyway. It took about five minutes to hacksaw through the chain. I hope history will forgive us for that little bit of vandalism! Anyway, that was that, and we were ready to really, finally, do it! Out and up we went, just as we had practiced many times, hauling up the equipment in short order. We pulled the ladder up behind us, as an extra precaution. When the entire assault team was on the rim of the dome, Brian gave the thumbs up, and we charged to the top. I still get goosebumps when I think about that moment - the rush of adrenaline, the realization that no matter what, the nipple was going up.

There was no confusion at the top. To the sound of cheers and applause - we had of course been spotted right away - we put up the nipple and the pink in record time.

The assualt team in action on top of the Great Dome. {Editor's Note: Doesn't this remind you of the Iwo Jima Memorial?}

The job is done; we prepare to descend.

We made a tour to check our work, and everything was secure. By now, everyone down below realized what we were up to, and evidently the President made a comment about the "ingenuity" of MIT students. You bet, Jerry! We allowed ourselves a moment to drink in the glorious moment, to stand with fists upraised on the top of the dome, and then we headed down. One by one we slid down a rope - too fast, I might add! - and assembled in the parapet to hang the banner. With the help of a couple of guys who wanted to hang a small "Grateful Dead" sign, we hoisted the banner, which was sixty feet long, up and over the ledge: "Mamma Maxima Scientiae!" - the Great Breast of Knowledge.

Mamma Maxima Scientiae: The Great Breast of Knowledge.

We made a last, quick check, and then back to the elevator. We dropped to the third floor, and dispersed. No campus police were around - we assumed they were all on either the eighth floor, trying to get to the dome, or on thtories/images/breast/voila.gif" align=center alt="">

Mamma Maxima Scientiae: The Great Breast of Knowledge.

We made a last, quick check, and then back to the elevator. We dropped to the third floor, and dispersed. No campus police were around - we assumed they were all on either the eighth floor, trying to get to the dome, or on the fifth, with the elevator call buttons pressed. Too bad for them: this time we did everything right! We regroupreat Breast of Knowledge.

We made a last, quick check, and then back to the elevator. We dropped to the third floor, and dispersed. No campus police were around - we assumed they were all on either the eighth floor, trying to get to the dome, or on the fifth, with the elevator call buttons pressed. Too bad for them: this time we did everything right! We regrouped in the Great Court to enjoy the fruits of our labor, and what a sight it was. The pictures don't do it justice, I'll tell you that. I think you could have knocked us over with a feather, as they say... we were as high as a person can get legally!

The view from the river.

To wrap it all up, we "alerted the media", getting some mention on various radio stations, including a 10 minute, live interview with Tracy Roach on WBCN. (I still have the tape...) If we were sky-high happy when we came down from the dome, we were downright giddy when the BCN interview came on. Flushed with success, we also called the campus patrol to ask if we could get our nipple back... they were REALLY TICKED OFF, because we left their ladder on the dome, and they had no way to get to it! No, they would not allow us to retrieve the nipple, and if we tried, we were assured that they would get "all of our names". Like we were really worried - Chief Oliveri already had all of our names! Too bad, though - it would have been nice to have recovered the nipple. In fact, it didn't come down until days later, when high winds finally took it. Better that way, than at the hands of infidels, though!

B.O.O.B.S. was officially closed down with a champagne and steak dinner at my place in Boston. It had been almost nine months since the project started, with at least 1000 dollars and 2000 man hours invested. I think we knew then, and I certainly know now, that the Nipple hack was something extraordinary. We knew, too, that we would probably never get to do anything quite like it again. Perhaps that is what moments of great triumph are about.

Well, that's the story, start to finish. You know that we sent pictures to Playboy, one of which they published in the February 1980 issue. They paid us fifty bucks for it, too. I happen to be in that picture, by the way, easy to identify in my orange shirt.

As a final thought, I wanted to mention that throughout the whole project, although the campus police were always the "enemy", in fact, we realized that we couldn't have done it without them. For the most part, and no doubt largely due to Chief Oliveri, the campus patrolmen made students understand that they were there to protect, not to hassle. In some other environment, I doubt we would have ever been successful with the Nipple. It was fitting, I think, that Brian bumped into our favorite CP a week or so after the picnic. Brian wrote to me in a letter:

I talked to Sargent Macho. He said, "I saw you finally got it up. It was great - I loved it! Those day shift guys razz us about how many people go up on the roof and don't get caught. You guys were up there in front of everybody for ten minutes and there wasn't a damn thing they could do about it. You should have heard what was coming over the radio!"

I wish I had!


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Last modified: Wed Mar 12 20:22:32 EST 1997