Traditions abound at most colleges and universities, but at Caltech, they don't center on the typical fight songs and mascots. Each of the student houses has its own unique customs. The Flems, for instance, fire off their cannon after graduation each June, and every Halloween, Dabney House stages a pumpkin drop from the top of Millikan Library, the highest point on campus. (According to tradition, a claim was once made that the shattering of a pumpkin frozen in liquid nitrogen and dropped from a sufficient height would produce a triboluminescent spark.) Common to all the student houses is the tradition of sit-down dinners served by student waiters.
Caltech's Annual Olive Harvest Festival, a community tradition since 2007, takes place on the first Friday of November. Members of the Caltech Community and our surrounding neighbors join us in a fun-filled day of olive picking, exhibits, culinary demonstrations, and more! The olives that are picked are pressed into oil and sold to benefit student scholarships and activities.
Some of the quirkier undergrad customs: Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" is played at the highest possible volume at 7 a.m. each morning during finals week (but playing the piece at any other time is forbidden); and on a certain day of the year (think "spring ahead, fall back"), some students attempt a "Negative Time Tommy's Run," where they try to drive across town, eat a burger, and return to campus before they left.
In the grimiest annual event on campus, students let the mud fly as they observe the decades-old tradition of Mudeo. They compete in games like ultimate Frisbee, tug-of-war, and wheelbarrow races, all in a 100-foot-long swamp of mud.
Pranks are common practice at Caltech, often involving rivalries between student houses. Techers have been known to take their hijinks off campus as well. Two of the most famous of these pranks are the changing of the Hollywood sign to read "Caltech" and the rewiring of the scoreboard during the 1984 Rose Bowl game to show that Caltech was trouncing MIT (actually, UCLA was playing the University of Illinois). During the 1961 Rose Bowl Game, Caltech students altered the University of Washington's card stunts to display "Caltech."
More recently, in the spring of 2005, a group of Techers traveled to Cambridge during a weekend when prospective students were visiting the MIT campus. Among many pranks executed that weekend, the Caltech students handed out 400 T-shirts wrapped in plastic that said "MIT" on the front. When the shirts were opened, it was revealed that "...because not everyone can go to Caltech" was printed on the back. In retribution, a group of MIT students came to Tech a year later, "borrowed" Fleming House's 130-year-old, 1.7-ton cannon, and took it back to MIT. The cannon was soon retrieved, and Techers are undoubtedly planning their next strike.
Caltech's student newspaper, The California Tech, recounts The Great Rose Bowl Hoax. On April 1 each year, The Tech tends to put out a special edition, and it has put out a prank edition of another school's paper.
Time Recounts a History of Tech Pranking
In an article called "Pranking Pride," Time magazine catalogues the history of pranks carried out by students at Caltech and MIT. From the 1961 Rose Bowl Hoax to a 2007 incident at Boston's Logan Airport, the article describes the bicoastal hacking competition as "the geeky version of working things out on the football field."
One of the oldest Caltech traditions is Ditch Day. Sometime during the 1920s, seniors longing for a break decided to give themselves a day off. Abandoning classes and schoolwork, they collectively vanished from campus.
This became an annual tradition, and eventually underclassmen (from whom the date of the event was kept secret until the day itself) took to "modifying" seniors' rooms while they were gone. Over the years, rooms have been filled with sand, Styrofoam, a disassembled-and-reassembled car, and a functioning cement mixer, among many other items; and furniture has been glued to ceilings, moved into courtyards, and suspended from trees.
Hoping to frustrate these modifications, seniors took to stacking cement blocks in front of their doorways before leaving campus. Over the years, these "stacks" evolved into complex, imaginative puzzles that are carefully planned out for months or even years in advance in order to occupy the underclassmen throughout the day.
In truth, these kinds of activities are apt to occur at any time of the year at Caltech, but Ditch Day encourages especially inventive manifestations of the pranking impulse.