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When you could whistle a phone call

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 17, 2013 11:26 AM

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A lot of romance surrounds hackers. We’re drawn to the idea of the lone savant burrowing his way into a computer system by pluck and ingenuity—not with any nefarious intent, but just to see if it can be done.

Hacker romance is at the heart of a thoroughly enjoyable review of Phil Lapsley’s new book “Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell,” which ran in the Los Angeles Review of Books on April 11. It tells the story of an underground community of hackers who, for two decades, used high-pitched chirps and beeps to turn the AT&T phone network into their own personal playground.

As reviewer Jason Brown explains, in the 1940s and 1950s phone companies shifted from human switchboard operators to an automated system in which machines used “control signals” to route calls. The main signal was a high-pitched 2600 hertz tone that signaled that “a phone was on the book and should not be billed.” But in the late-1950s a seven-year-old blind kid with perfect pitch named Joe Engressia figured out how to whistle that tone exactly, confusing the automated system and allowing him to make free phone calls. The hacker pastime that came to be known as “phone phreaking” was born.

Over the next twenty years phone phreakers proliferated, publishing manuals, swapping tips, and talking with each other in these newly created blind spots in the phone network. Most of the phone phreakers were mischievous but harmless. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were phone phreakers. The most famous phone phreaker of all was John Draper, who went by the name “Captain Crunch”—a handle inspired by the kids’ breakfast cereal that, during that period, happened to come packaged with whistles that sounded at precisely 2600 hertz.

But not everyone got into phone phreaking for the fun of it. Lapsley’s book details how mafia bookies, whose business required lots of expensive long-distance calls, quickly adopted the practice. In the 1960s AT&T began trying to root out phone phreakers and in 1976 Captain Crunch went to jail solely for playing games on the phone network.

Brown explains that Lapsley’s book is a romantic look at an antiquated hobby and also a warning note. Today, as the recent, tragic case of Aaron Swartz demonstrated, the federal government has no sense of humor about hacking, regardless of the motives that inspire it. Lapsley posits AT&T’s crackdown on phone phreaking in the 1960s as the moment when that sensibility began to take hold.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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