The revival of a 20-year-old website is now allowing students to relive the legend of the mysterious pumpkin appearance decades after the original mystery.
On October 8, 1997, a pumpkin materialized at the top of 173-feet-tall McGraw Tower overnight, with no one claiming responsibility for the seemingly impossible feat. Within hours, it quickly became a source of entertainment and intrigue — not just at Cornell but around the country.
To commemorate the anniversary, Cornell staff member Oliver Habicht dusted off his 20-year-old floppy disk, retrieved his original footage of the pumpkin atop McGraw Tower and put it on display for viewers across the world.
Amid the campuswide buzz 20 years ago, Oliver Habicht, who was working for Cornell’s IT department at the time, mused, “Wouldn’t it be neat to be the person who saw it fall off? Wouldn’t it be cool … to have a video camera on it?”
And from then, the PumpkinCam was born.
Now the IT manager of the Chemistry Department, Habicht recently re-created the original Pumpkin Watch website. A request to view the old site, taken down ages ago, motivated him to “redux” the site.
For this revival project, Habicht said he uploaded data from a floppy drive — an old-fashioned flash drive which is read magnetically by a spinning circle — to the internet.
Habicht said it was really simple. “All I had to do was upload a folder that contains a few files and a few directories” onto the web server, he said explaining the conversion process.
When the pumpkin did not fall off as expected, people began to realize it was there to stay, and inspiration struck.
“I put together the pieces that were required,” Habicht said and created a live-stream through the lens of a camcorder perched on one of the top floors of Olin library, so everyone could follow the pumpkin’s progress.
“People just kept contributing different parts” to the project, he said. He added that one person even loaned him a computer, another a camcorder and the library an office.
“Fun is what motivated the whole thing,” Habicht said.
The live-stream was instantly popular, perhaps because of the alluring mystery or so alumni “could hark back to their alma mater days,” and Californians could laugh at Ithaca’s weather, Habicht said.
At a time when it was not an option to scroll through Instagram or Twitter in passing, the live-stream was a novel form of entertainment.
Recalling common internet entertainment, “the way people did things was you visited websites and you emailed … [and] that was about it,” Habicht said.
Not only was the 24-hour broadcast groundbreaking in the realm of technology, but its presence lasted long after the pumpkin was taken down.
“This project created the impetus for there being an investment in webcams by the University,” Habicht said, and lead to the modern live view of McGraw Tower and Ho Plaza.
In a way, the resurrected site is a snapshot of the past.
The webpage as seen online today is virtually identical to the original, with the exception of a brief introduction about its restoration, Habicht said. And Habicht was also able to transform the static image originally on the site into an animated gif.
To this very day, how exactly the pumpkin climbed up McGraw Tower and planted itself at its spire remains a mystery. In Habicht’s opinion, one compelling theory is a group of perpetrators traveled to the top of the tower and, with their rope-climbing skills, hoisted themselves and a hollowed-out pumpkin through a hatch.
158 days after the pumpkin’s bizarre appearance, a crane removed the pumpkin for safety reasons. When asked if it was saddening to see the pumpkin taken down, Habicht plainly stated: “It was time.”
Its long-awaited descent was victorious in a sense because people were finally able to learn that it truly was a real pumpkin.
The great legend of the pumpkin atop McGraw Tower will perhaps always overshadow other pranks for Habicht. Whereas others are ephemeral, this one lasted over the course of winter and early spring — and is even still mentioned in campus tours today.
And through Habicht’s revival of the original website, students can now follow the legend, as if it were happening right now.