The year is 1982. The place is Harvard Stadium. The time is right smack in the middle of the Harvard-Yale game with 7:45 remaining in the first half. Suddenly, a large black balloon covered with the word “MIT” emerges at the 46-yard line, swells up to an incredible size, and explodes seconds later in a great burst and releases a puff of white talcum powder—shocking players, coaches, and spectators alike.
As the prank exploded in the media, bewildered Harvard-Yale fans quickly learned what had happened. Members of MIT’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity had, in classic MIT engineering fashion, crafted a technological masterpiece: a Freon-driven hydraulic balloon device that they wired into an empty circuit breaker under the field. In the lead-up to the game, the pranksters had gone to Harvard Stadium eight times in the middle of the night to install the device, working against the clock (and ducking Harvard security) in pitch darkness. DKE chapter president at the time Bruce Sohn explained that “security patterns were established every evening” and look-outs, along with camouflage outfits, ensured that the team wasn’t caught by HUPD or security cameras. The boys buried the device 36 inches underground (with the balloon six inches below the grassy surface), then ran wires into the room where the power supply was located. The apparatus was supposed to be remote controlled, but on game day it didn’t deploy. Ever resourceful, one DKE frat member snuck underneath the stadium, found the electrical room, and pulled every circuit breaker until the device was activated. Just like that, the prank erupted.
After the event, the DKE held a press conference. True to frat form, many of the brothers sat around a table drinking from beers and mugs, basking in the media attention.
“It was just Freon,” one member explained. “It’s just what you’d get in a refrigerator. It’s harmless and it’s escaping. It’s inert gas.”
The brothers would not name the perpetrator who pulled the trigger on-camera; Sohn insisted that “the whole house was there—all 40 people [were responsible].” When asked about potential danger, Sohn maintained that “it was no problem. We weren’t worried about anyone getting hurt and we knew that no one would really be near it and the balloon itself held no dangers.”
The stunt was broadcast on CBS and during the nationally televised Ohio State-Michigan game. WBZ-TV Bob Lobel called it “one of the most unbelievable things I’ve ever seen” and “the greatest college prank of all time.” The Boston Globe’s Micheal Madden called it “the prank of pranks.” The next day, a Boston Herald headline read “MIT 1, Harvard-Yale 0: Tech Pranksters Steal the Show.”
“I sat there and didn’t really know what to think. I thought the Phoenix was again rising from the ashes... I thought I had seen it all,” Harvard’s president at the time, Derek Bok, told The Crimson after the game.
The hack lives on to this day; in 2007, Sports Illustrated named the balloon the fourth best prank in college sports history. During the game, Gerry Leone, then sophomore and defensive back on Harvard’s football team, was standing right near the spot where the balloon erupted out of the ground.
“It was a big game because if we won, which we did, we would win the title—the Ivy League title,” he recalls. And then it happened: “We were standing on the sidelines, and I remember just seeing the earth break... and not knowing what was going on. The balloon popped right out of the turf.”
“We were shocked... You see the turf break and something starts coming right out of the grass—we had no idea what was going on,” Leone said.
While Leone said he didn’t know the MIT perpetrators, he professed tremendous respect for their cleverness and originality, saying that “this was highly unusual and really creative and really cool.”
Even today, the balloon prank remains one of the highlights of Leone’s time on the football team and one of his most vivid memories at Harvard Stadium. “I think it’s terrific. I think it lends to the atmosphere—nobody gets hurt, nobody gets offended—I think it lends to the atmosphere and makes it fun.”