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Ninth day of Hackmas

Ninth day of Hackmas: the US phone system is hacked by a blind boy whistling that leads to Apple being founded

Remember the old phone dial tone? Phone systems in the early days (1950’s) were based on automatic switches triggered by tones. There were several tones and frequencies used to determine when a call was over.

In 1957, a young blind boy was lonely and isolated until his mother introduced him to the telephone. He became obsessed with the phone system as it for once allowed him to interact with others with prejudice. He could talk and sing and he would later go on to setup a phone messaging system that played recordings of his stories.

Whilst he didn’t know it at the time, he had a genius IQ of 172 and was pitch perfect. He spent hours playing with the phones and eventually worked out that if he whistled into the phone at a particular pitch, the phone system would register that as a finished call and stop charging. He was then free to make as many free long distance calls as he liked.

Once he went to college he became one of the most popular kids on campus, as he started to charge $1 to unlock phones for long distance phone calls. Eventually he was caught after his super powers made the news and the authorities were alerted.

Little did he know that there was a generation of “phone phreaks” (as they called themselves) who were producing hardware versions of his whistle known as “blue boxes”. In 1971 Esquire Magazine ran an article on the young man “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” that made Joe Engressia (or Joybubbles as he later changed his name to) an icon.

This article inspired a young Steve Wozniak to call his friend, Steve Jobs, and begin reading him passages. Jobs and Wozniak became obsessed with blue boxes and within five years they had founded Apple.

Engressia’s superpowers came to a close in 1991 when the analogue phone network was replaced with the digital one that’s still largely in place today. To continue connecting, Joybubbles (as he was known as by then) placed adverts in newspapers and magazines around the world so he could talk to anyone who called. Here’s a video of Joybubbles talking to people from Australia.

Could this have been prevented?

Don’t be heartless. It’s Christmas.

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