Steve Jobs, Phone Phreaker

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 1 2013 11:20 PM

Phreaks and Geeks

Before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak invented Apple, they hacked phones.

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Wozniak had a better, geekier idea: They needed to build their own blue boxes, but make them with digital circuits, which were more precise and easier to control than the usual analog ones. Wozniak and Jobs didn’t just build one blue box—they went on to build dozens of them, which they sold for about $170 apiece. In a way, their sophisticated, compact design foreshadowed the Apple products to come. Their digital circuitry incorporated several smart tricks, including a method to make the battery last longer. “I have never designed a circuit I was prouder of,” Wozniak says.

Author Phil Lapsley.
Author Phil Lapsley.

Like Tufte, Jobs and Wozniak, amazingly, were never busted—though they came close. In one of the most action-packed sequences of the book, Lapsley details a run-in with the law that almost landed the pair in jail in the early 1970s. On a drive from Berkeley to Jobs’ house in Los Altos, Jobs’ car broke down. Wozniak and Jobs walked to a nearby gas station and attempted to use one of their blue boxes to call Captain Crunch—who was by then a friend—for help. The calls didn’t work. Cops turned up and questioned them about the blue box. Wozniak managed to convince an officer that the blue box was a synthesizer, even playing a few tones to demo the device. Incredibly, the cop bought the whole story, letting them go—they even got their blue box back.

Many other phone phreaks were not so lucky. Several of them served prison sentences; many paid exorbitant fines. Phone phreaking still exists today in some quarters, but is, for the most part, an anachronism, supplanted by the rapid growth of computer hacking. But there was still something magical about hacking phones, and the stories are legend to this day. Exults Jobs in a 1998 interview, quoted in Exploding the Phone: “It was the magic of the fact that two teenagers could build this box for $100 worth of parts and control hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure in the entire telephone network of the whole world.”  You can spot Jobs’ all-consuming ambition, creative vision, and penchant for total control in his happy-go-lucky days of phone phreaking in the ’70s.

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Exploding the Phone is Rosenbaum’s Esquire article writ large over 400 densely packed pages. Lapsley lacks Rosenbaum’s flair for language, but he makes up for it with technical depth and an obsessive amount of research. In addition to conducting numerous primary interviews, Lapsley filed over 400 freedom of information requests with the FBI, DOJ, CIA, NSA, FCC, and the National Archives while writing the book. Intriguing details culled from thousands of pages of government records, most notably the FBI files on various phone phreaks, fill the book’s pages.

In the story of the phone phreaks Lapsley sees a greater lesson about the way society ought to handle those who think different. “There is a difference between mere curiosity and true crime, even if we cannot always clearly articulate what the difference is or what we should do about it when we recognize it,” he writes. “At some level, we as a society understand that there is a benefit to having curious people, people who continually push the limits, who try new things. But we’d prefer they not go too far; that makes us uncomfortable.”

But that discomfort is often a sign that those curious people are on the right track. “If we hadn’t made blue boxes,” Steve Jobs said in 1998, “there would have been no Apple.” After all, as Lapsley points out, most of the phone phreaks didn’t care about making free long-distance calls. It was burning curiosity that motivated them. “There is a societal benefit,” he writes, “to tolerating, perhaps even nurturing … the crazy ones—the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes.” Sometimes those curious misfits turn out to be Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Edward Tufte—or Aaron Swartz.

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Geeta Dayal is the author of Another Green World, a recent book on Brian Eno. Follow her on Twitter.