Thursday, February 7, 2013

Phone Phreaks

Esquire.  How We Lived 1933-1983.  June 1983.
The above illustration by Nigel Holmes accompanied an article by Ron Rosenbaum  entitled "The First Computer Freaks" in the 1983 issue of Esquire, and was a reprint of the same article originally published as "Secrets of the Little Blue Box" in the October 1971 issue.

The article describes how "phone phreaks" (as they called themselves) started out by using tone generators (like the whistle that came free in "Cap'n Crunch" cereal boxes) to gain free access to long-distance phone lines.  They discovered that AT&T had, twenty years previously, made a multi-billion dollar decision to control its switching system with 12 combinations of six master, electronically-generated tones.  Each number on the dial pad was assigned a combination of two different tones.  For instance, the number "5" was represented by the simultaneous production of a 600 cycle per second and a 1300 cycle per second tone.  A Bell engineer unwittingly published the actual tone frequencies in an engineering journal, and the genie was out of the bottle.  Phreaks discovered ways to generate the tones themselves, and to navigate around the world's phone system, just having fun.  They'd use two separate lines, for instance, making a free call to themselves by routing a call entirely around the world to their second phone, where they could listen to themselves 20 seconds ago.  Or, they'd share the phone numbers of public phone booths around the world, and call these to talk to whoever picked up.  One phone booth in the London tube was especially popular.  

Just as with today's illegal downloaders, the industry aggressively went after them and a number were jailed.  The first casualty was Joe Engressia, a congenitally-blind young man with and 172 IQ and perfect pitch.  Ironically, by making an example of him, the phone companies provided a champion to the other phone phreaks, and a catalylist to link together all of the individuals and groups who were engaged in this activity, most of whom had been previously unaware of each other's existence.  This group included the likes of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

In 1991, Engressia legally changed his name to Joybubbles.  Among his other accomplishments, he founded his own Church of Eternal Childhood.  He died in August 2007 at age 58.  See his New York Times obit.

1 comment:

Graham Clayton said...

What a fascinating story!