The 1980s was the decade in which home computers started to become commonplace. It was also when people first became aware of a new breed of outlaw, the Teenage Computer Hacker. The public quickly learned to fear these antisocial nerds sequestered in their suburban basements, each possessing an unnatural knowledge and mastery of those new fangled “home computers.” They could bend these machines to their will, and use their 300 baud modems to project their virtual presence through the global network of phone lines and infiltrate your bank account, DMV records, or, god forbid, the air traffic control system.
I was a computer obsessed teenager at the time, and I wanted to be a hacker more than anything. But I owned a TRaSh-80 with 16k of RAM and a tape drive, and my parents adamantly refused to buy me a modem, probably because they could guess what sort of nefarious cyber activities I had in mind. Since I couldn’t delve into the hacker underworld on my own, I had to live vicariously through the teenage computer hackers I saw on TV and in the movies. Luckily, this was the 80s, and teenage computer hackers were everywhere. And if a movie or TV show featured an underage geek doing something illegal with a computer, I would be riveted to the screen.
So without further ado, here are my Top Five Computer Hacking Scenes from the 80s:
1. WARGAMES (1983)
During the greatest hacking montage in the history of movies, David researches the background of the WOPR’s creator, Professor Stephen Falken, until he learns enough about him to figure out his secret password and get into the system. The moment he does, he immediately fires up a simulation for GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR. That’s when the fit hits the shan.
2. WHIZ KIDS (1984)
My favorite episode was one titled “The Network” that involved Richie accepting a challenge from a famous hacker named Wrench that gets him in way over his head with the FBI, the NSA, and some Russian spies. Here’s a scene from the episode’s climax – you’ll notice that it’s eerily similar to the end of WarGames in every respect.
3. KNIGHT RIDER (1983) – Episode: “Soul Survivor”
And my all-time favorite episode of Knight Rider is the one where a teenage computer hacker named Randy takes control of KITT using a Texas Instruments computer and an Atari joystick! (You’d think he would have used the Atari paddle controllers instead – much easier for steering).
4. MAX HEADROOM (1987)
My favorite character on the show was, surprise surprise, Bryce Lynch, the teenage computer prodigy who invented Max Headroom. Bryce spent most of the show inside his darkened high-tech lair in the Network 23 skyscraper, surrounded by CRT screens, hacking into impregnable computer systems, retrieving top secret data, and eating sandwiches with a robot claw. I don’t even need to point to a specific scene – nearly every episode of this show is packed with vintage hacking awesomeness. I couldn’t get enough.
5. REVENGE OF THE NERDS (1984)
This movie actually features a scene where Gilbert Lowell (Anthony Edwards) uses a computer to hack his way into Michelle Meyrink’s heart. (Or her pants, depending on how crass you want to be.) I declare this one of the greatest hacking feats of the 80s, primarily because Michelle Meyrink also played Jordan in Real Genius (the cutest geek girl in cinematic history). This scene might be the most improbable of the bunch.