Phone Phreaks: The Fascinating Story of the World’s First Hackers

With major players like Captain Crunch and Joybubbles and a group of blind teenagers, the world of phone phreaking is instantly intriguing. Phone phreaks were exposed in the 1970s as the first hackers into a beatable phone system. Phone phreakers formed an underground network and hacked mostly for the thrill of the hack. They weren’t in the game to get rich, but found amusement in their abilities to break into Ma Bell’s computerized system using a series of tones, imitating phone communication.

The First Phone Phreaks

John Draper, a.k.a. Captain Crunch, earned his phreaking name from a toy whistle given out in the Cap’n Crunch boxes that happened to omit a perfect 2600-cycle tone, the exact tone needed to make the phone operator let him place or receive free calls. When the Captain was transferred to England with his Air Force unit, he used the whistle to receive calls from his friends, free of charge. The Captain is also credited with making the most notorious of blue boxes: a better, faster, and more perfect version of the phone company’s version. The Captain would use his device and abilities to make calls around the world to himself, simply for his amusement.

While the Captain may be the most notorious, Joe Engressia is known as the granddaddy of phone phreakers. Joe Engressia, known as Joybubbles, was born with perfect pitch, but no sight. He used his pitch to whistle the tones necessary to hack into the phone systems. While an operator could detect his human whistle, the phone system could not. His whistle abilities gave him access to other worlds as a child, escaping the suffering of abuse at the hands of his school and parents.

In the late 1960’s, Joybubbles’ escapades in the phone system were revealed by a curious phone operator, and he became an instantly infamous phone hacker. The media exposed his hobby to other phone phreaks who began to contact him. The scattered groups of phone phreaks eventually banded together to create a nationwide underground network that shared knowledge.

Like Joybubbles, many phone phreaks were blind. Networking at a summer camp for blind kids spread phone phreaking up and down the West coast. One blind kid shared secrets of phone hacking with his blind campmates. When camp was over and the kids scattered back to their home towns, the viral intrigue spread. After one of the campers moved to the East coast and attended blind camp there, again it spread. Because of the acute hearing abilities of the blind teens, phone phreaking was a natural progression.


Brilliant Tinkering

Phone phreaking wasn’t just child’s play. It was brilliant tinkering. In order to make the phone company think its own software was talking to it, a combination of master tones could be played into the phone receiver. Among phone phreaks, there was a wide circulation of the sounds needed to make calls shared on cassette tapes, created by electric organs (or perfect pitch whistling in Joybubbles’ case). These sounds were based on a published technical journal with all the actual frequencies used to make the multi-frequency sounds. The article was eventually pulled from circulation, but by that time it was too late. The first blue box was created in just hours, and the phone system was hacked. Multi-frequency machines, called M-Fers, began a phone phreaking revolution.

Phone phreaking in itself, the exploration of the phone network, isn’t illegal. But wiretapping, stealing phone equipment, and making free phone calls is. The innocence of exploration got a bad rap from the eventual exploitation of the phone companies.

While phone phreaking was mostly innocent, computer hacking was a natural progression. One phone phreaker, Mark Bernay, went from phone phreaking to computer hacking. He wanted to find out how to beat a system and do things he wasn’t supposed to do. And he was successful in his goal. Eventually the company he worked for discovered he was illegally inhabiting a part of their internal system, and they fired him. Al Gilbertson followed in Bernay’s steps hacking into computers and selling blue boxes for profit so others could scam Ma Bell.

Phone phreaking’s influence is unmistakable. Modern hackers have been influenced by phone phreakers, naming their 2600 Hacker Quarterly after the 2600 Hertz tone that phreaks used to replicate the dial tone that would allow them initial access into the phone system.


Public Exposure

Thanks to a brilliant article published in Esquire in 1971, the general public first became aware of phreaking. The phenomenon had had a cultural impact. Not only did the exposure of Captain Crunch and Joybubbles’ abilities expose a social sub-culture of phone phreaks who banded together in their hobbies, it showed the phone companies how to lock down an insecure business. Eventually, several phone companies hired Joybubbles, and for a while he became one of the first network security police. Technical innovations were created because of the holes phone phreaks discovered.

While phone phreaks have a bad rap because they’re doing something sneaky and possibly intrusive, in reality phone phreaks are mostly innocent and amusing. They simply found holes in the phone system, and explored them. Phone phreaks weren’t stealing from anyone in particular, but were exploiting the reigning telecom monopoly held by AT&T at the time. More than anything, early phone phreaks were fascinated by the phone network, and felt compelled to play within it.