Exploding the Phone
The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bellby Phil Lapsley
A riveting history of the telephone hackers of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
“If we hadn’t built blue boxes, there would have been no Apple.” —Steve Jobs
Before smartphones and iPads, before the Internet or the personal computer, a misfit group of technophiles, blind teenagers, hippies, and outlaws figured out how to hack the world’s largest machine: the telephone system. By the middle of the twentieth century the telephone system had grown into something extraordinary, a web of cutting-edge switching machines and human operators that linked together millions of people like never before. But the network had a billion-dollar flaw, and once people discovered it, things would never be the same.
Phil Lapsley’s Exploding the Phone traces the birth of long-distance communication and the telephone, the rise of AT&T’s monopoly, the creation of the sophisticated machines that made it all work, and the discovery of Ma Bell’s Achilles’ heel. Lapsley expertly weaves together the clandestine underground of phone phreaks who turned the network into their electronic playground, the mobsters who exploited its flaws to avoid the feds, and the counterculture movement that argued you should rip off the phone company to fight against the war in Vietnam.
AT&T responded with “Greenstar,” an unprecedented project that would ultimately tap some thirty-three million telephone calls and record 1.5 million of them. The FBI fought back, too, especially when a phone phreak showed a confidential informant how he could remotely eavesdrop on FBI calls. Phone phreaking exploded into the popular culture, with famous actors, musicians, and investors caught with “blue boxes,” many of them built by two young phone phreaks named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Soon, the phone phreaks, the feds, and the phone company were at war.
Based on original interviews and declassified documents, Exploding the Phone is a captivating, ground-breaking work about an important part of our cultural and technological history.
“With verve and technical accuracy, Phil Lapsley captures the excitement of the days when phone hackers explored Ma Bell’s cabled paradise of dial phones and electromechanical switches. When a call across the country cost $5 and operators placed person-to-person calls, teenagers saw the chance to exploit the system, trying to stay a step ahead of police and telephone technicians. Here’s the intriguing story of those first electronic adventurers—tinkerers who’d bypass a pay phone with a couple transistors or reach around the world by whistling.” —Cliff Stoll, author of The Cuckoo’s Egg
“Brilliantly researched.” —The Atlantic
“Lapsley uses his main subject as a jumping-off point for a highly engaging history of the telephone itself and plenty of intrigue. Sure, these guys, these [phone] phreaks, were breaking the law, but they were also innovators, technological geniuses, precursors of today’s computer hackers. A fascinating book.” —David Pitt, Booklist
“Phil Lapsley’s Exploding the Phone is an authoritative, jaunty and enjoyable account of their sometimes comical, sometimes impressive and sometimes disquieting misdeeds. The author’s love of his subject pervades Exploding the Phone and persuaded this reader, at least, that the phone phreaks are worthy of thoughtful attention.” —Howard Schneider, The Wall Street Journal< "A rollicking . . . incredible clandestine history . . . a brilliant tapestry of richly detailed stories." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Phil Lapsley’s Exploding the Phone does for the phone phreaks what Steven Levy’s Hackers did for computer pioneers, capturing the anarchic move-fast-break-stuff pioneers who went to war against Ma Bell . . . Lapsley is a master storyteller . . . We’re moving into an era where every policy fight starts and ends as a fight over how technology should work and who should control it . . . Exploding the Phone is an essential guide to where that fight started, how it’s changed, and where it has stayed the same, over more than half a century.” —Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
“Lapsley takes up one of the more unusual chapters of the American underground. . . . Lapsley’s knack for detail and his impressive research will have tech phreaks and non-phreaks, well, freaking. . . . It’s impossible to set this book aside. . . . One way or another Exploding The Phone will probably be one of the most talked about books this year.” —PopMatters
“A fantastically fun romp through the world of early phone hackers, who sought free long distance, and in the end helped launch the computer era.” —Charles R. Cross, Seattle Times
“Exploding the Phone is an extraordinary book. . . . To have such a significant, yet underground story captured in such brilliant detail is rare, especially without turning it into a one-sided hero’s tale. Exploding the Phone is nearly perfect. I have three print copies, all paid for and autographed. You can’t have too many miracles lying around the house.” —Jason Scott
“Lapsley traces the history of long-distance technology and tells the story of this first generation of network hackers—among them Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (who wrote the introduction).” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
“[An] engaging work.” —The Poughkeepsie Journal
“Always entertaining and clear without being excessively technical . . . a well-documented work of historical value. . . . Highly recommended.” —K.D. Stephan, Choice
“A deep dive into how the telephone network evolved, and how the phreakers came to launch their assaults on the integrity of the networks, the book is at once enjoyable and educational. Especially in an era where hackers are among the biggest stars around.” —Daniel Terdiman, CNET
“A fascinating book steeped in the rich history of phreakers and hackers.” —Xeni Jardin, BoingBoing.net
“While parts of the story have been told before, Lapsley’s far-reaching research brings many of the central characters into a single read, resulting in an extremely interesting and engrossing read. . . . Lapsley does a superb job of writing the story of the glory days of phone phreaking. . . . Exploding the Phone is the first comprehensive history of the era of phone phreaking and Lapsley has done a masterful job making the story fascinating and readable.” —Slashdot
“A fascinating story.” —Charles R. Cross, The Seattle Times
“Exploding the Phone opens like a cold war spy caper, with a young, incurably curious Harvard student discovering a cryptic message in the classified section of the student newspaper in 1967. . . . As he digs deeper, he discovers that the secret community he is on the verge of infiltrating isn’t the CIA or the KGB but the fledgling group that would one day call themselves the ‘phone phreaks,’ a loose society of people dedicated to investigating and exploiting flaws in the international phone system. The produce of years of research . . . this is the eminently interesting and completely original history of the proto-hackers (counting among their number a couple of youngsters named Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs).” —Nicholas Mancusi, The Daily Beast
“Lapsley’s delightful account . . . sheds light on an under-appreciated chapter in the history of technology. . . . Nearly every chapter of the book takes time to patiently introduce another of AT&T’s extraordinary technical achievements, either at the macro or micro scales. Lapsley introduces us to a shadow lexicon . . . yet this backgrounding never becomes overwhelming. Like a good teacher, Lapsley lays out small amounts of information at each encounter, carefully returning to those dollops in succeeding chapters.” —Bryan Alexander, Reason
“Exploding the Phone opens with an irresistible hook: In 1967, a secret message planted in the Harvard Crimson leads a curious student to uncover an underground network of ‘phreaks,’ phone hackers who figured out how to game the nation’s telephone network. Phil Lapsley’s great history of those hackers is packed with schemes, plots, discoveries, and brainy, oddball personalities. . . . the history he uncovers—and the questions he poses, about the nature of the relationship between criminality, curiosity, and technology—is compelling, fascinating stuff.” —Alison Hallett, Portland Mercury
“This fascinating narrative captures the ethos of hacking as it existed before the personal-computer era.” —Ricardo Laskaris, Library Journal
“Lapsley more than ably conveys the nuances of this fascinating slice of technological history . . . and his enlightening new interviews with most of the major phreaks as well as AT&T security officers form one of the most significant levels of his tremendous research. Fans of Brian Falkner’s Brain Jack, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, and other hacker tales, along with anyone who’s ever tried to liberate their iPhone, should be fascinated even before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak show up to bridge the transition from phone phreaks to computer geeks.” —Mark Flowers, School Library Journal
“Fascinating ” Exploding the Phone manages to pull of the seemingly impossible—make one nostalgic for the days of busy signals, operators and rotary dials.” —Greg Di Cresce, Winnipeg Free Press
“A rocking great read about the unknown teenagers and hobbyists who defied AT&T when it was foolish to do so. In Lapsley’s magnificent research he has uncovered what amounts to a secret pre-history of the computer and internet revolutions.” —Tim Wu, author of The Master Switch
“With terrific reporting and story-telling. Phil Lapsley has put voluptuous flesh and bones on the legendary tales of the phone phreaks.” —Steven Levy, author of Hackers and In the Plex
“The definitive account of the first generation of network hackers—the scruffy rebels who first plumbed the secrets of the global telephone network, and accidentally earned the wrath of everyone from AT&T to the FBI. At turns a technological love story, a counter cultural history and a generation-spanning epic, Exploding the Phone is obsessively researched and told with wit and clarity. It captures a moment in time that might otherwise have been lost forever.” —Kevin Poulsen, news editor of Wired.com and author of Kingpin
“Before he was the god of sexy computers, Steve Jobs sold blue boxes to Hollywood stars and Bay Area hippies. Exploding the Phone connects the cultural lines that run from hacking Ma Bell to building personal computers. Here, for your amusement, is the story of the frothy counterculture that helped create today’s connected world.” —Thomas A. Bass, Author of The Eudaemonic Pie and The Spy Who Loved Us
“Seldom are criminals this much fun. Even the phone company had a soft spot for these misfits. They are as well-behaved a band of troublemakers as you are ever likely to meet.” —Robert Sabbag, author of Snow Blind
An Amazon Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
A School Library Journal Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
One of Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Books of 2013
A Seattle Times Best Title of the Year
In the fall of 1968, Joe Engressia transferred to the University of South Florida in Tampa. A little over a month into his first semester the blind Engressia had mentioned to some other students that he could whistle free longdistance calls. Yeah, right, the students said. Faced with such disbelief, Engressia responded with two little words that would change his life:
A dollar was wagered. Whistling ensued. Engressia emerged slightly richer.
Engressia’s whistling trick combined two of the things he had learned ten years earlier: hook-switch dialing and whistling to disconnect a call. Engressia knew that if he whistled 7th octave E, that is, 2600 cycles per second, he could disconnect a long-distance phone call. By whistling short bursts of 2,600 Hz he could mimic the telephone company’s “single frequency dial pulse” dialing system.
For example, to dial the area code 212 he would whistle two quick bursts of 2,600 Hz, followed by one quick burst, followed by two more quick bursts: beep beep, beep, beep beep! It was simply the whistling equivalent of the hookswitch dialing he had learned as a little kid!