Here’s a little something to while away a long weekend: Phone Trips, a massive archive of phone phreaking recordings. Long before BitTorrent, Pirate Bay, or Napster, online lawlessness was all about clever kids figuring out how to make long-distance phone calls for free, and the reverberations echoed far through the technology industry.
Phone phreaking, like early modems, was premised on the exploitable fact that analog telephone lines not only transmitted audio signals, they also used audio signals for network control. Phreak culture began when a blind seven-year-old with perfect pitch discovered that whistling a particular note would cause his dial tone to disappear, inaugurating a tradition of blind telecommunications hackers that continues into the present day. Soon, aspiring ne’r-do-wells proved that a 2600 Hz tone, played into any Bell telephone, would cause the phone to think any call on the line was over, allowing clever hackers to make calls without being charged long-distance fees by playing further frequencies into the mouthpiece. One of the early kings of phreaking, “Captain Crunch,” got his name when he discovered that the free whistle included in boxes of the titular cereal provided a perfect 2600 Hz tone without the need to master the recorder, instrument of choice for grade-school bands and phone phreakers alike.
Soon, hackers were making “blue boxes“, which packed all the necessary tone-generation features into a compact little unit the size of a pack of cigarettes. Esquire published a long article covering the phenomena, falsely labeling it as “fiction,” so as not to inspire other lawbreakers. Despite the label, there was enough technical content in the piece that a San Jose mom thought her boy, who loved fooling around with electronics, would be interested. So she tore the article out and mailed it to little Steve Wozniak, who immediately shared it with his hippie room-mate, a long-hair by the name of Steve Jobs.
Depending on who you believe, Jobs and Wozniak either built their own blue boxes, or Captain Crunch showed them how to do it; either way, they were soon gleefully driving around California using the boxes to make calls without paying a dime. The device they built was so good, they decided to start a little business making blue boxes and selling them to friends for $150 apiece. Yes, you read that right — the first business that Jobs and Wozniak started was illegally selling a hack to jailbreak the phone system. This was a serious enough criminal offense that Jobs disclosed it when seeking security clearance from the Department of Defense.
The F.B.I. caught up with Captain Crunch before too long, but he remained an important figure in Jobs and Wozniak’s next business, building one of the first code assemblers for the Apple I, and EasyWriter, the first word processor for the Apple II. According to Wozniak, some of the circuitry designs used in the blue box were used for the Apple II’s video processing.
Phone phreaking continued to be a popular pastime for all manner of anti-authority counterculture types, with Abbie Hoffman forming the Youth International Party Line and Al Bell (no relation to Ma!) launching the Technological American Party, dedicated to showing young people how to “stick it to The Man” by hacking phone lines. Outside of the radical politics world, phreaks formed communities built around pure love of messing with the system. In the 1970s, almost every town in America had a slightly different telephone network, and “phone trips” became the dedicated phreak’s version of a vacation: driving around the country recording the different dial tones and number pitches in every town. Yes, this is what kids did for fun before the Internet. When the first Internet forums developed in the form of BBS networks, phone phreaks immediately took to them as a place to share information with less risk of censorship or capture than print publication. The most famous of those was alt.2600, named for the 2600 Hz tone, which evolved into one of the great hacker magazines of the 90s.
Phone phreaking became less popular as long distance rates dropped, especially once cellular phones started treating long distance and local calls as identical. But phreaking didn’t truly end until June 15, 2006, when Wawina County, Minnesota, the last exchange to use a “phreakable” signal, switched over to a T1 carrier (that’s a type of telecommunication system, no relation to T1 Internet connections).
Today, the original phreaks are remembered on the History of Phone Phreaking blog, in the upcoming book Exploding the Phone, and in the fond memories of dedicated Apple historians. So if you have the good sense to treat a three-day weekend as a chance to mess around in your basement without being bothered, take a look at the Phone Trips site and relish the energy of the original cybercriminals.