Journalist and hacker historian Phil Lapsley has just published an incredible book about the early days of phone phreaking, Exploding the Phone. In the late 1960s and early 70s, people like Steve Wozniak were running around doing things to telephones that today people would do to the internet. We've got a great excerpt from the book, about early phone pranks.
"Pranks," an Excerpt from Exploding the Phone
LIKE THE FLAP of a butterfly’s wings causing a hurricane half a world away, the ripples of unintended consequences from Ron Rosenbaum’s “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” continued to spread. “You know how some articles just grab you from the first paragraph? Well, it was one of those articles,” Steve Wozniak recalls. “It was the most amazing article I’d ever read!”
Wozniak happened to pick up a copy of Esquire from his mother’s kitchen table the day before starting classes at Berkeley in the fall of 1971. Rosenbaum’s article “described a whole web of people who were doing this: the phone phreaks. They were anonymous technical people who went by fake names and lived all over the place,” he recalls, how they were “outsmarting phone companies and setting up networks that nobody imagined existed.” It seemed unbelievable. And yet, he says, “I kept reading it over and over, and the more I read it, the more possible and real it sounded.”
Oddly enough, part of what made the article seem so real to him were the characters. Despite their fanciful nature and funny names, Wozniak remembers, “I could tell that the characters being described were really tech people, much like me, people who liked to design things just to see what was possible, and for no other reason, really.” There was something about the whole thing that just rang true, despite how crazy it seemed. “The idea of the Blue Box just amazed me,” he says. The article even gave a few of the frequencies it used. As for Joe Engressia being able to whistle free calls? “I couldn’t believe this was possible, but there it was and, wow, it just made my imagination run wild.”
The twenty-year-old Wozniak put down the magazine. He picked up the phone and called his friend Steve Jobs—then a seventeen-year-old senior in high school—to tell him about it. Less than an hour later the duo were on their way to raid the library at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. SLAC was the atom smasher at Stanford University. It had a great technical library, Wozniak says, and he had a long history of sneaking into it to look stuff up. “If there was any place that had a phone manual that listed tone frequencies,” he says, it would be SLAC.
The two dug through the reference books and before long they struck pay dirt: an international telephone technical standard that listed the MF frequencies. “I froze and grabbed Steve and nearly screamed in excitement that I’d found it. We both stared at the list, rushing with adrenaline. We kept saying things like ‘Oh, shit!’ and ‘Wow, this thing is for real!’ I was practically shaking, with goose bumps and everything. It was such a Eureka moment. We couldn’t stop talking all the way home. We were so excited. We knew we could build this thing. We now had the formula we needed! And definitely that article was for real.” Jobs agrees: “We kept saying to ourselves, ‘It’s real. Holy shit, it’s real.’”
That very day Wozniak and Jobs purchased analog tone generator kits from a local electronics store; this was the Silicon Valley in 1971, after all, and such things were easily available. Later that night they had managed to record pairs of tones on cassette tape, enough to make a blue box call. But it didn’t quite work. They were able to disconnect a call to 555-1212 with 2,600 Hz—they heard the kerchink! of the trunk—but their MF tone tape recordings didn’t do anything. They worked late into the night trying to figure out what was wrong. In the end Wozniak concluded that the tone generator just wasn’t good enough to make the telephone network dance to his tunes.
Wozniak started classes at Berkeley the next day. But he couldn’t get his mind off of blue boxes and phone phreaking.
He thought more about the analog blue box that he and Jobs had tried to build. The problem with analog circuits is that they are imprecise. This is because the components they are constructed with—resistors and capacitors and inductors and such—are themselves inexact. For example, if you want an analog circuit to generate a tone at a particular frequency, as you would for a blue box, you might need a resistor of 1000 ohms and a capacitor of 0.1 microfarads. Unfortunately, when you buy a resistor, you can’t get one that is exactly 1000 ohms; rather, it is guaranteed to be only within 10 percent of that value. If you want to spend more money, you can get ones that are more accurate—ones whose values vary by only 5 percent or even 1 percent—but there is always some inaccuracy in the individual components. When you combine them to build a circuit the inaccuracies often compound. Worse, the component values vary with temperature. So you might spend time tuning your blue box in the warmth of your dorm room and get it all working and then go out to a pay phone in the cold night air only to find that it doesn’t work anymore.
Steve Wozniak had been designing electrical circuits for years; just a year earlier he had designed his own tiny computer, the “Cream Soda Computer,” so named because he and a friend drank tons of cream soda while they were building it. Computers are made out of digital circuits, circuits that deal with 1s and 0s rather than the full range of values that analog circuits can handle. While this may seem like a limitation, it gives digital circuits a huge advantage. Digital circuits are exact and their building block components don’t vary from one to another, nor do they vary with temperature. With this in mind Wozniak started thinking about how to build a digital blue box, which would be made up of the chips used to build computers, not analog components such as resistors and capacitors and transistor oscillators. It would use a quartz crystal, like those used in the then newfangled digital watches, for ultimate accuracy and rock-solid stability.
By early 1972 Woz had his design worked out. Even more than the fact that it was digital, he was particularly proud of a clever trick he used to keep the power consumption down so the battery would last longer. “I swear to this day,” says the man who would one day design the revolutionary Apple I and Apple II computers, “I have never designed a circuit I was prouder of.” It took a day to build. When he and the other Steve tested it, it worked the first time.
Finally they had joined the ranks of phone phreaks. Woz adopted the phone phreak handle “Berkeley Blue” while Jobs became “Oaf Tobar.” Through a happy coincidence involving a friend from high school they tracked down Captain Crunch at radio station KKUP in Cupertino. They arranged for Draper to meet them in Woz’s dorm room at Berkeley.
Woz recalls the fateful meeting. “Captain Crunch comes to our door, sloppy-looking, with his hair kind of hanging down on one side. And he smelled like he hadn’t taken a shower in two weeks, which turned out to be true. He was also missing a bunch of teeth.”
Hoping against hope, Woz asked his visitor if he was indeed Captain Crunch.
“I am he,” was Crunch’s reply.
“He turned out to be this really strange, funny guy, just bubbling over with energy,” Woz says, “one of these very hyper people who keep changing topics and jumping around . . .”
Draper and Woz and Jobs and a few friends spent the next several hours trading blue boxing techniques and circuit designs; Woz was particularly pleased that Draper taught him how to call overseas using a blue box. They continued the conversation over pizza until about midnight when they went their separate ways. The two Steves got in Jobs’s car and began the hour-long drive from Berkeley to Jobs’s home in Los Altos.
About halfway home their car suffered a complete electrical failure. They managed to pull over and the two walked to a gas station, where they tried to use their blue box to call Draper and ask him to rescue them. But for some reason the blue box call wouldn’t go through. Worse, the operator came back on the line. They hung up and tried several more times but it just wouldn’t work. They started to worry that their blue box had been detected.
“All of a sudden,” Woz recalls, “a cop pulled into the gas station and jumped out real fast. Steve was still holding the blue box when he jumped out, that’s how fast it happened. We didn’t even have time to hide it. We were sure that the operator had called the cops on us, and that this was the end for sure.”
The cop and his partner spent some time rooting through the bushes, presumably looking for drugs that the two hippies had stashed. Finding no drugs, the cops turned their attention to the blue box. What was it, they wanted to know? It was an electronic music synthesizer, Wozniak said. He gave a demo of a few tones. What’s the orange button for, the cops asked? Unfortunately for their story, the orange button was the one that generated 2,600 Hz and it didn’t sound very musical. “Calibration,” Jobs replied.
Woz and Jobs explained that their car had broken down. The cops told them to get in the back of their patrol car and they would go “check out the car story.” As Woz put it, “In the back seat of a cop car, you know where you’re going eventually: to jail.” As the cop car pulled out, one of the police officers handed Woz back his electronic synthesizer. “A guy named Moog beat you to it,” he said. Apparently the two Steves weren’t going to jail after all.
It wasn’t long before the more business savvy of the duo smelled an opportunity: selling blue boxes. “Steve Jobs suggested we could sell it for $170 or so, he came up with the price pretty early in there,” Wozniak recalls. Before long the two were peddling blue boxes in the dorms at Berkeley. Their sales technique was inspired. They would knock on random dorm room doors and ask for an imaginary person with a made-up name. When the confused occupant would respond “Who?” they would say, “You know, the guy who makes all the free phone calls.” Depending on the occupant’s reaction they might add, “You know, he has the blue boxes.” If the person they were talking to lit up and got excited, they knew they had a solid sales prospect who wasn’t likely to turn them in.
In addition to going door to door they had another sales channel through a random phone phreak acquaintance in Los Angeles. Wozniak and Jobs had dialed into a loop-around circuit in southern California one day and found themselves talking to a young teenager named Adam Schoolsky. Their friendship blossomed. Schoolsky, better known as Johnny Bagel in Los Angeles phone phreak circles, had been introduced to the hobby by LA phreak Al Diamond and his telephone joke lines. As it happened, Schoolsky had an older friend who was well connected in Hollywood. Through this connection—and Schoolsky’s help in assembling and manufacturing the boxes—Jobs and Wozniak found themselves handling a couple of “quantity orders,” that is, orders for perhaps ten boxes at a time. Many of these wound up in the hands of various Hollywood stars and glitterati.
“Sales went on through the summer,” Wozniak recalls, but eventually they dwindled off. He had a job at Hewlett-Packard and it took a lot of time to build a box, Woz says—it worked out to a “low paid salary.” That fall Jobs started at Reed College and lost interest in the business. In all, Wozniak guesses, they sold maybe thirty or forty boxes; Jobs remembers it as more like a hundred.
Every blue box that Woz made and sold came with a unique guarantee: a small piece of paper was tucked inside the box and bore the words, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” If one of his boxes ever failed to work and it came back to him with the little note inside, he would repair it, free of charge. Offering a guarantee on an illegal product in such a quirky way appealed to Wozniak’s sense of humor. “It’s kind of strange in itself, it’s kind of unusual, but I felt it was worth the joke,” he says.
Between 1973 and 1975 several of Oaf Tobar and Berkeley Blue’s customers were caught red-handed with their blue boxes. The boxes wound up at the FBI Laboratory where they were disassembled and analyzed. On the whole, the FBI has never been known for its sense of humor. In each case, Woz’s little bit of paper with its inscription—sometimes handwritten, sometimes typed—was carefully noted in the FBI’s report and photographs. The feds knew that this tied the boxes together in some way, but fortunately for Woz and Jobs—and perhaps for the rest of the world—the FBI never linked the blue boxes to the two of them.
Like most phone phreaks, Woz spent time exploring the network, using his blue box to figure out how the telephone system worked. But he soon found another use for it: pranks.
Wozniak had always loved pranks, especially clever, high-tech ones. For example, his first year in college he built a small circuit that jammed televisions, which he would use to annoy his dormmates by surreptitiously messing with the reception on their shared TV set. When the TV went fuzzy, eventually one of the people in the room could be counted upon to get up and try to fix things. That era’s TV sets had adjustment controls for fine tuning that you could fiddle with, and many TVs had rabbit ear antennas whose reception could vary quite a bit depending on how the antenna was oriented and where people and other objects were in the room. As soon as his victim was in an awkward position—say, with his hand directly in front of the TV screen—Wozniak would stop jamming the signal and the picture would clear up. The other students would shout at the victim to hold that position since the TV apparently liked it that way. Woz recalls one evening’s particularly successful jamming prank: “The dozen or so students stayed for the second half hour of Mission Impossible with the guy’s hand over the middle of the TV!” Later, when Steve Jobs was graduating from high school, Woz and Jobs and a friend worked hard on a graduation present for Homestead High School. It was a large banner featuring a middle-finger salute with the words “Best Wishes”; the idea was that it would be unrolled dramatically and anonymously during the graduation ceremony. Sadly, another student discovered it and it was taken down before it could be unfurled.
His blue box, Wozniak realized, had great potential for practical jokes. For reasons he can’t quite recall he got it in his head one day that they should try calling the pope. Using his blue box he managed to route his call to the Vatican. “In this heavy accent I announced that I was Henry Kissinger calling on behalf of President Nixon. I said, ‘Ve are at de summit meeting in Moscow, and we need to talk to de pope.’” The Vatican responded that the pope was sleeping but that they would send someone to wake him. Woz arranged to call back in an hour.
Woz recalls, “Well, an hour later I called back and she said, ‘Okay, we will put the bishop on, who will be the translator.’ So I told him, still in that heavy accent, ‘Dees is Mr. Kissinger.’ And he said, ‘Listen, I just spoke to Mr. Kissinger an hour ago.’ You see, they had checked out my story and had called the real Kissinger in Moscow.”
Of course, Wozniak wasn’t the only phone phreak with a love of pranks. Charlie Pyne and company at Harvard had used their blue box to try to reach the president of Mexico at two o’clock in the morning on a similar lark some ten years earlier. As suggested by the slightly misspelled Spanish in the Fine Arts 13 classified ad of the Harvard Crimson—“El presidente no esta aqui asora; que lastima”—they did not succeed. But the phone phreak prank that generated the most publicity and consternation occurred on November 10, 1974. Readers of the next day’s Los Angeles Times were introduced to the gag via the reassuring headline, “Santa Barbara Is Still OK; A-Blast Report Just Hoax.” Callers to Santa Barbara, California, the day before received no such reassurance. Rather, people calling in to Santa Barbara from out of town found their calls routed to someone who identified themselves either as an emergency operator or as a Marine Corps officer. In either case, the caller was told, “There has been a nuclear explosion in Santa Barbara and all the telephone lines are out.” The prank lasted for only thirty minutes, reported the Times, “but the effects continued throughout the day, with alarmed calls to General Telephone Co. and to Santa Barbara police from as far away as Florida and Alaska, demanding details of the ‘tragedy’ and asking, in some cases, if World War III had begun.”
This horrifying prank was the work of a pair of Los Angeles–area phone phreaks. The hack they used to pull it off was the result of a bug that the phone company called “simultaneous seizure”; it could be exploited in a couple of different ways. One way involved old-school step-by-step switching equipment, which was still quite prevalent in the telephone network of the 1970s. Under the right conditions, if two separate calls were made simultaneously, step-by-step equipment could become jammed partway through dialing the calls. In essence, two different sets of switching equipment in the central office would both attempt to seize the same circuit at the same time, hence the term. The upshot was that the two calls would be inadvertently connected. This was an extremely rare occurrence—the conditions had to be just right and, after all, very few things truly occur simultaneously in this world. When it did happen, it wasn’t that big a deal. The two callers would be surprised to find themselves connected—halfway through dialing a number—to somebody they didn’t call; they would curse the phone company and its incompetence and then both would hang up and try again. The system would reset and all would be well.
But what if one of the people didn’t hang up?
Because of a quirk in the step-by-step switching system, the person who didn’t hang up would be left in limbo, the call halfway complete. And there the call would stay, until eventually some new call would come in and attempt to seize the circuit in use by the first call. Once again, the two calls would be connected. How long it took for this to happen depended on exactly where in the switch the call failed and how many other calls needed to go through that portion of the switching equipment.
And though it’s true that most things don’t occur simultaneously in nature, sometimes you can stack the deck in your favor. What if, for example, you had two telephone lines and connected them both to the same rotary dial? This would take a bit of electrical wiring, of course, but when you spun that dial you would be sending dial pulses into two separate telephone lines in the same step-by-step switching office at exactly the same time. It might take a few tries, but using this method you were likely to succeed in jamming a step-by-step switch.
Another place that simultaneous seizure could occur was on the long-distance network, when two long-distance tandems simultaneously seized the same long-distance trunk to make a call to the other. For example, imagine a long-distance trunk line between New York and Los Angeles; this is a bidirectional trunk, so it can be used for calls in either direction. If the switching equipment in both New York and Los Angeles happen to grab this trunk line to make a call to the other, and do so at the same time, two unrelated calls will be thrown together. Phone phreaks could cause this situation to happen by making a long-distance call and then whistling off with 2,600 Hz and continuing to send 2,600 Hz down the line, thus mimicking the idle line condition. At some point the remote tandem would route a call back to the phone phreak who could then prank the hapless caller.
Once you had jammed the switch, you could lie in wait for incoming calls. If you were a bit clever, you could influence what part of the switch you jammed and thus what types of incoming calls you would be getting. For example, phone phreak Mark Bernay—who had had nothing to do with the Santa Barbara prank, it should be pointed out—was fond of jamming incoming directory assistance calls. Sometimes he would prank the callers, but more often he would actually look up telephone numbers for them, just like a directory assistance operator would, leafing through LA -area phone books as quickly as he could. “We would sit there trying to look things up fast enough to satisfy the customers,” he remembers. “It was really hard to do. I became very impressed with directory assistance!”
One of the pair of phreaks who pulled off the Santa Barbara A-bomb pranks recalled that they stayed on the lines about half an hour, telling callers that their calls to Santa Barbara had been intercepted due to a nuclear explosion. “We didn’t even know what we were going to do—it was all impromptu. . . . I t was for the reaction, just to see how people would react.” In retrospect, he said, “It’s not something I would ever want to repeat again.”
Perhaps the ultimate phone phreak prank belongs to Captain Crunch and a friend of his, though their material came courtesy of Johnny Carson’s joke writers. The year 1973 had been a rough one for the United States, what with the ongoing Watergate scandal and the energy crisis and gas rationing. Carson, the host of the popular Tonight show, watched by millions of people every evening, joked on TV in late December about the latest crisis facing the United States: “You know, we’ve got all sorts of shortages these days. But have you heard the latest? I’m not kidding. I saw it in the paper. There’s a shortage of toilet paper.” The next day Americans rushed to buy toilet tissue, emptying shelves in stores. Carson later apologized for the joke and clarified that there was no toilet paper shortage, except that now it seemed as if there actually were one, since people could see for themselves that store shelves were bare. The rumor took hold and it was months before the situation worked itself out.
With that as background, Crunch’s prank began with a call to a particular toll-free 800 number. Back in the 1970s, 800 numbers mapped to regular telephone numbers. In fact, each prefix within the 800 system translated to a particular area code. For example, 800-421 mapped to area code 213 in Los Angeles, 800-227 mapped to area code 415 in the San Francisco Bay Area, and 800-424 mapped to area code 202 in Washington, D.C.
Now, if you’re a phone phreak and want to scan for interesting numbers, what better place to dig through than Washington, D.C.? There are only ten thousand numbers to dial and it doesn’t cost you anything to call them—they’re toll-free, after all—and it should be a natural hunting ground for interesting things. Before long the phone phreaks had discovered a toll-free number that went to the White House: (800) 424-9337. Draper believed this was the “CIA crisis line,” that is, the CIA ’s hotline to the White House, and he claims that he was able to eavesdrop on it using his blue box. One evening, Draper says, he and a friend were listening to this line and, through their wiretapping, learned that the code name for the president was “Olympus.”
“Now we had the code word that would summon Nixon to the phone,” Draper says. He and his friend wasted no time in dialing the 800 number, though he claims they were careful to first route their call through several tandems in order to make it difficult to trace back.
“9337,” said the person who answered the phone.
“Olympus, please!” Draper’s friend said.
“One moment, sir.”
About a minute later, Draper recalls, a man who sounded “remarkably like Nixon” asked, “What’s going on?”
“We have a crisis here in Los Angeles!” Draper’s friend replied.
“What’s the nature of the crisis?” the voice asked.
In the most serious voice he could summon, Draper’s friend responded, “We’re out of toilet paper, sir!”
“Who is this!” Draper recalls the Nixon-like voice demanding. Draper and his friend quickly hung up.
“I think this was one of the funniest pranks,” Draper says, “and I don’t think that Woz would even come close to this one. I think he was jealous for a long time.”
Reprinted with permission from EXPLODING THE PHONE: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. By PHIL LAPSLEY Grove Press New York Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Lapsley