Steve Jobs and Me
He said my 1971 article inspired him. His iBook obsessed me.
Photo by Tom Munnecke/Getty Images.
You may have read about this in the Times obit for Steve Jobs. I’m talking about this passage which dealt with the origin of the Apple partnership between Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and my role in it:
The spark that ignited their partnership was provided by Wozniak’s mother. Mr. Wozniak had graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, when she sent him an article from the October 1971 issue of Esquire magazine. The article, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” by Ron Rosenbaum, detailed an underground hobbyist culture of young men known as phone phreaks who were illicitly exploring the nation’s phone system.
Mr. Wozniak shared the article with Mr. Jobs, and the two set out to track down an elusive figure identified in the article as Captain Crunch. The man had taken the name from his discovery that a whistle that came in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal was tuned to a frequency that made it possible to make free long-distance calls simply by blowing the whistle next to a phone handset.
Captain Crunch was John Draper, a former Air Force electronic technician, and finding him took several weeks....Based on information they gleaned from Mr. Draper, Mr. Wozniak and Mr. Jobs later collaborated on building and selling blue boxes, devices that were widely used for making free—and illegal—phone calls. They raised a total of $6,000 from the effort.
Jobs had told me about my story’s role in his life over lunch back in the ’80s and somehow I thought people knew about it; it has been written about since by others, and I gave a brief account of it in my book The Secret Parts of Fortune. But apparently it’s not well known outside the tech world, and Slate asked me to talk a little more about me and Jobs and Apple.
The lunch with Jobs took place in a huge hangar-like restaurant—then-fashionable, now-defunct—called, I swear, "America." I had been doing a story about California surfer-styled ad man Jay Chiat, the one who devised the Apple’s turning-point "1984" ad, depicting a lithe young woman hurling a hammer at a screen upon which an evil looking Big Brother-type was delivering a harangue. The ad captured—or created—the Apple ethos of rebellion against the tyranny of conformity.*
Anyway Jobs was in town and he came to the lunch with Chiat, and after the introductions, he told me about how the blue box article had inspired him and Wozniak. How they'd taken down the cycles-per-second of the tones AT&T used to translate phone numbers into audio signals, some of which I'd disclosed in the article, and how they’d found the others in some obscure technical journals and had begun building their own blue boxes, hoping to sell them on the underground market. (Gamblers and mobsters liked to use them to keep their communications outside the system.)
Even then, at that lunch, Jobs displayed his characteristic design sensibility when talking about these illicit gadgets. Some of the sleeker ones were about the size of cigarette pack, with silvery keyboard panels—not too different in appearance from the later iPod—and I remember his keen interest in what model, what design, I'd gotten hold of.
But he came across as a very level-headed guy, unpretentious even though his company was then blowing up big time. I remember being gratified at my story having some influence, and indeed I put Jobs' revelation into the story about Chiat, but it was cut by an otherwise astute editor. Jobs just wasn't that important then.
Jobs asked me how I got onto the story in the first place, and I told him how I’d been tipped off to the phone phreak underground by my friend Craig S. Karpel, then a contributing editor of Esquire, who had come in contact with a lawyer for a guy (whose identity I agreed to protect) who was indicted for making blue boxes for some guys who were using them for their long-distance horse-racing wire services. (After the Times obit came out, Craig sent me an e mail with the tongue-in-cheek subject line: "How you and I created modeern civilization." Of course, considering the whole of modern civilization, this is a mixed legacy. Slate is reprinting the article today.)
Anyway, Mr. X had been caught by AT&T counter-techies and wanted revenge, so he decided to let the world in on this underground network running rings around AT&T. The phone phreaks were a loose confederation of proto-hackers, many of them blind teenage tech wizards, most of them living in what is now Silicon Valley.
I went to a meeting of one of the blind geek groups at one of their suburban gathering places and watched them construct these amazing contraptions that let them hack into the worldwide phone system. They filled me in on the legendary exploits of the first hacker superhero, Captain Crunch, the key transitional figure between phone phreaks and computer hackers. A man who drove around Silicon Valley-to-Be in a Volkswagen van equipped with a computerized phone phreaking device. He’d pull up to an isolated phone booth, snake a cable out and start making free calls all over the world. His specialty was calling himself by sending his voice through circuitry that went around the world and back to his phone booth. (Can anyone truly say online discourse has substantively improved since then?)
A couple days later I was sitting in a hotel room, the Holiday Inn in San Francisco’s Chinatown, talking for hours to phone phreaks, when there was a sharp rap on the door. It was the concierge, who told me that a Captain Crunch (who I think he believed was a policeman), needed me to get off the phone and take his call immediately. Crunch wanted to make sure I knew about his exploits, his superpowers.
Crunch was a great character; nobody has really captured him. Correction: The feds eventually captured him, and he did time, although when I met him shortly after my article came out (in a McDonald’s in San Jose) he was pleased with his new if perilous notoriety.
And after Crunch and Jobs found each other he became a key to Jobs’—and Apple’s—success. He gave hacking an outlaw glamour that attracted the best and brightest of the libertarian-tinged techies and his association with Jobs—a kind of open secret in the Valley—kept the hacker outlaws focusing on PCs not Macs. That alone was an immense competitive advantage.
Of course there was more than outlaw glamour to Apple. Jobs’ machines, beginning with the Mac, had a mystique that’s hard to explain.
The weird thing is that at just about the moment that, unbeknownst to us, Jobs died, I was discussing this elusive mystery over dinner with an ex-girlfriend. We were talking about our antiquated iBooks. How we probably had the two oldest iBooks currently in use in America, vintage 2004, and yet despite the ridicule, sneering and virtual bullying we got over their condition, we didn’t want to give them up because we venerated them somehow.
They were so reliable! We laughed at all those Windows people who were forever talking about how they had to spend hours on the phone with “help.” Neither of us, totally non-tech savvy, ever had to call for help in the life of our little machines. They did what they were supposed to do, and they looked good doing it. She’s of Finnish descent and writes occasionally about Finnish design, you know, Marimekko, Saarinen, and all that, and for her it was the look of the 2004 model that most spoke to her genetic appreciation for the functionally beautiful. Or at least that’s what I told her.
We talked about Jobs’ uncanny ability to build something beautiful and useful that lasted. Some people can do two of those three. He hit for the circuit. For me, keeping the old model is not about the look, but about faithfulness and not wanting to discard something you’ve grown close to. The way you can learn to love a machine like a living being.
We realized our old computers were the velveteen rabbits of iBooks!
Have you ever read The Velveteen Rabbit? I never knew it as a child but then some woman read it to me and I discovered—how did someone put it recently?—that "my tearducts did their job."
It's about a kid's rabbit that gets all worn and lumpy and discarded and seems like he's died. (Yes, I realize that stuffed rabbits aren't alive. It's kid's book, dude.) But then the rabbit is found again and we learn that "love is what keeps toys alive." OK, you had to be there. My taste in prose runs to Gibbon, or Sir Thomas Browne, but I will defend to the death The Velveteen Rabbit.
Of course, like the velveteen rabbit, our venerable laptops had their limits as actual devices after a while as the whole digital world whizzed by them. I got used to watching the whirling “beachball” as the machine took its time going about its tasks. Or refusing to. Mine started to crash at the simplest YouTube video. Applications like Flash, Adobe, and Real Player laughed at my lack of "system requirements" when I tried to download upgrades. And when I tried to update my operating system, I'd be told I didn't have the system requirements to update the system requirements.
But you know how much time one can waste watching YouTube or Netflix? I hope you do, because I don’t. But I bet it would be a LOT.
Anyway, the night Jobs died, my ex and I talked about our differing approaches to the worn-out Mac keyboards. She would meticulously get replacement keys, but over the years they came in different varieties of off-white, so her keyboard ended up looking like a weird off-white on off-white (blonde on blonde!) checkerboard. Very Finnish in a way, many different shades of snow. And when they stopped making keys the right size she figured out something I still can’t quite follow about putting paper on top of the blurred-out old keys and using a Sharpie to write the letters on them. (“Montessori school,” she said proudly, of her problem-solving skills.)
My solution was to just leave a gaping hole where the key was and press on the little platelet beneath (it works!). I had come to feel about my iBook the way I used to feel about my Olympia Report Deluxe typewriter, the cream of black-ribbon machines.
But the machine does look like it’s done hard time by now. And here’s where the bullying comes in. When I took it over to the United Kingdom last year for a Cambridge fellowship, as soon as I opened it up, everyone else in the seminar room with their shiny new super PCs gathered around to gawk and jeer at the missing keys. I responded cruelly that they should think of it as an homage to the local dentistry.
And you would think they had enough with the first session of jeering, but practically every morning someone with some shiny new machine would come over and make some wisecrack about mine. “Look! The letters on half the keys are entirely invisible.” (That’s why they call it touch typing, dude.) Some people seem to think there's a correlation between the newness of their machines and the freshness of their thinking. I'm not so sure.
But they couldn’t leave it alone. I who was used to tapping away at home in privacy felt bad for the Velveteen laptop as well as myself.
My ex-girlfriend said that when she would work at the public library and open hers, people would back away as if it might have bed bugs. We talked about workarounds for our attachment problems. Our G4’s just don’t download most attachments other than the basic PDFs. We mainly have to send them to a third party who downloads and sends them back pasted into e-mail. We had attachment problems because of our attachment problems.
And oh, right, the word processing program. Anyone remember “AppleWorks”? It’s compatible with like zero other machines.
But in a way these limitations were a feature not a bug. There are so many roads of distraction available if you’re writing, and the distractions don’t require you to do anything but hit a few keys. I want to be able to get Netflix streaming video, but it will be fatal to me as a writer.
Video: Steve Wozniak Remembers Steve Jobs
Nonetheless, for all their limitations, we’ve bonded with our old iBooks. The two of us didn’t bond with each other for long, but we have a bonding instinct. Yes, we both love cats. And you could probably say we love our iBooks in the same way. Velveteen rabbit-style. Don’t underestimate that book. It teaches you a lot about love and the afterlife. And somehow I feel it was not an accident we were praising the spirit of Steve Jobs embedded in our antiquated velveteen machines at the very moment he was making the Great Upload.
Bon Voyage Steve, you really did change the world.
From a guy who is honored to have “ignited the spark.”
Click here to read Ron Rosenbaum’s 1971 article, “The Secrets of the Little Blue Box”
Correction, Oct. 9, 2011: This piece originally stated that the woman in Apple's 1984 ad threw a spear. It was a hammer. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.