Many American universities have proud traditions based around excellence in sports or the matriculation of future presidents. This is not that story. While success on the grid iron measures the worth of jocks at big state schools, for the students at America’s most intellectual colleges, the means of glory is the prank. In schools like Cal Tech, MIT and the University of Chicago, showing off who’s smarter has become the nerd version of Michigan vs. Ohio State. Popular Science has a run down of schools of some of the brainiest pranks in the college history. Launch the gallery here.


While the prototypical Caltech prank resembles a 1975 gag where some students used a computer to win a car from McDonald’s, the most famous pranks revolve around the Rose Bowl. Since no Caltech team will ever play in the Rose Bowl, the annual game has been a constant target. In 1984, Caltech students hacked into the Rose Bowl scoreboard to read “Caltech 31, MIT 9”. However, the nerdiest prank in Caltech history involved former student Bruce Montgomery inscribing Caltech fraternity jokes onto the Voyager spacecrafts, ensuring Caltech pranks will one day reach the farthest reaches of the galaxy.
At left, two of Caltech’s infamous name-in-lights pranks. In 1961, 30 million Rose Bowl viewers were stunned when the Washington Huskies unwittingly began cheering the small, neighboring technical school. Ten years later, pulled a similar prank on the Hollywood sign.

University of Wisconsin

While not as purely intellectual as the other schools on the list (they actually have good sports teams at Wisconsin), the U of W Madison is a legendary prank school. Under the title of a student government political party named “Pail and Shovel”, a group of Wisconsin students constructed a life sized replica of the head and right arm of the Statue of Liberty on the frozen lake by the school. The party claimed that they had shipped the real statue over from New York, but that it had fallen through the ice with only the arm and head tall enough to poke out. Unfortunately, everyone had seen them building the giant model, ruining the surprise but not diminishing the engineering effort.

The University of Chicago

At the University of Chicago, the prank spirit gets channeled into the annual giant scavenger hunt. Started in 1987, the four day long “Scav Hunt” pits dorm against dorm in competitions like “build a bong shaped like Emile Durkheim” or “recreate Guernica on someone’s back in toothmarks”. However, the most famous Scav Hunt moment came in 1999 when students Justin Kasper and Fred Niell made plutonium in a nuclear reactor they assembled from random junk they found in the physics department. The next year, the same dorm made a replica V2 rocket in honor of Gravity’s Rainbow, proving that the dorm Burton-Judson had a more advanced nuclear weapons program than Iraq.

Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech’s most famous prank wasn’t a single prank but a decades-long conspiracy of pranks advancing the life of a fake student named George Burdell. The prank began in 1926 when a student received two enrollment forms. The student sent both back, one with his real name and one as Burdell. For the next four years, the student did all of his class work twice, once as himself and once as Burdell, earning Burdell a BA in 1930 and a few years later, a masters degree. During WWII, Georgia Tech alumni added Burdell’s name to bomber crew lists, sending him on missions across the European theater. After Georgia Tech computerized class selection and enrollment, students hacked the computers, adding Burdell to the school’s rolls numerous times over the last thirty years.


While Caltech students would argue otherwise, MIT has become to nerdy pranks what USC is to football. Befitting such a science and technology oriented school, MIT calls its pranks “hacks”, and many of them focus on the school’s great dome. Throughout the years students have wrapped the great dome in a replica of the one ring from Lord of the Rings, converted the dome to look like R2-D2 and even landed a replica of the Wright brother’s flier on the top of the dome. Much like Caltech’s pranks at the Rose Bowl, MIT likes to prank the annual Harvard-Yale football game, launching pro-MIT banners attached to a weather balloon that rose from the field in 1982 and attached to a model rocket launched from the end zone in 1990.