Caltech is known for housing brilliant minds and innovative technology alike, but did you know it is also the home of a 19th-century war cannon that belches smoke and flame on average three times per year?
The Fleming Cannon, a Caltech landmark and Franco-Prussian war era weapon circa 1870, is positioned in front of the campus’ Fleming House and will end the school year with a literal bang at Friday’s commencement ceremony as students blast off into their careers.
While most Pasadenans may have never heard of the cannon, it is an undeniable piece of the Caltech student body fabric and serves as a hangout spot, a magnet for pranks, and once was even victim of a highly-publicized hijacking by rival Massachusetts Institute of Technology students in 2006.
Caltech freshman and appointed Cannon Masteris currently Alex Janosi.
“Being able to fire a 1.3 ton cannon is something I love to do,” Janosi said this week as he prepared for Friday’s Commencement. “It’s really cool to be able to represent my house in Caltech as the Cannon Master and to have fun while doing it.”
The Fleming Cannon is fired to mark important events such as the end of rotation, the annual student Ditch Day, the end of a term, and Friday’s graduation.
The cannon was originally used in the Franco-Prussian War. It would eventually live as a front lawn artifact between 1925 and 1972 outside the then-military themed Southwestern Academy in San Marino. Fleming class officers got permission from Southwestern to take the cannon.
Then in 1986, Harvey Mudd College students reportedly stole the cannon, sparking a decades-long tradition of pranks both on and off campus.
The cannon was eventually returned after eight weeks (that time).
Janosi says he learned even before he started as a student that the cannon was a central piece of campus culture when he once stayed with a student host.
“Whenever I was asking my hosts, ‘hey, where should I meet you?’ they said, ‘oh, near the cannon.’ I was so confused why they said that, but I figured it out once I got here,” said Janosi.
Janosi came to Caltech to pursue computer science and quickly found he was just as interested in becoming the school’s proclaimed Cannon Master also, a title he says he was awarded after beating out 15 other applicants.
He is currently wrapping up the last stage of training and will be recognized as the official Cannon Master for two years to come.
The cannon keeps him busy, Janosi says, because Caltech’s other student houses enjoy pranking the Fleming cannon on a regular basis.
“They like to put stuff in the cannon like napkins that they dump inside there. So if we’re not careful, we’ll accidentally shoot it off with a whole bunch of confetti,” explained Janosi.
The pranking has taken on varying degrees of planning over the years.
It was rumored that Harvey Mudd would attempt to steal the cannon again in 2006 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their original theft, but after the cannon disappeared just a day prior to the anniversary, the cannon reappeared 2,974 miles away at Boston’s MIT.
Fleming’s members immediately planned a recovery operation and sent twenty-three members to Boston to retrieve their cannon. The expedition ended with a friendly backyard-style barbecue among rivals.
There is even an alumnus run website dedicated to telling stories of cannon heists throughout Caltech’s history.
The cannon is fully functional and spectators shouldn’t fear for their safety when Janosi fires it; he doesn’t fire off actual cannonballs. Janosi uses his science background to craft a blank made from an oatmeal tin, gunpowder, napkins, and duct tape for the big bang.
“It’s this big blob of duct tape with the trigger sticking out of it. Then, I have the key to the cannon, reload it in there and then when the time comes, I just put a 9-volt battery up to the trigger and it goes off,” explained Janosi.
The cannon typically remains undetected by neighbors. Janosi says he is certain surrounding neighborhoods hear it after a family friend from Janosi’s native Michigan who now lives a few blocks from campus told Janosi’s father on Facebook about the blast.
“My dad posted a video on Facebook of me firing it and they were like, ‘yeah, we heard that from our backyard — loud and clear’,” said Janosi.
Guest at Caltech’s commencement ceremony on Friday will witness Janosi fire the cannon.
“I always fire it at the end of commencement and I’m also going to fire it once for the Fleming house president,” said Janosi.