Exploding the Phone

Exploding the PhoneThis installment in the Music of Radio series takes a detour from the relationships between radio and early electronic I’ve been exploring to review a wonderful book I just read: ¬†Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley, published by Grove Press, 2014.

Hams are the original hackers, cobbling gear together from salvaged parts together and creating electronic nets over the airwaves. As history has shown many of the great computer innovators got their start in radio. Before the personal computer took off, before it became possible to hack networks from your own Commodore 64, phone phreaking was the fun hobby of choice for the technophiles who liked to work their way into supposedly locked systems and see how things worked. Many of those original phone phreaks were also avid hams. Unfortunately for them phreaking was illegal. Exploding the Phone, by Phil Lapsley, tells the story of those obsessed teenagers and outlaws who explored Ma Bell’s empire of wires as if it were a playground.

Though dealing with a technical subject the book has as much drive and page-turning momentum as a good spy thriller and is filled with good-natured humor. It starts off with one college students serendipitous forays into all-night dialing sessions to reach distant switch boards and inward-operators -the phone operators who could patch you further into the networks inner system. It begins with the desire of young kids to learn about the tones that controlled Ma Bell’s switching equipment and subsequent visits from police, phone security and the FBI. It then ducks back into the past and gives a fascinating run down on the development of the long-distance phone network. It explores the fatal flaw not seen by the engineers who pieced the system together but allowed blind kinds who knew how to whistle 2600 Hz the ability to gain access to the most expensive system of electronic equipment the world had known up to that point. From the vantage of someone who is fascinated by the inherent musicality of radio and electronics I really enjoyed the part of the book that talked about how the phone system “sang” to itself using in-band multifrequency signaling as a means to control trunks and exchanges.

Armed with this knowledge the phreaks were able to make a lot of free phone calls with their blue boxes and tone generators. For the most part they didn’t use their skills for the purpose of ripping off the phone company but just for the kick they got out of seeing how many exchanges they could route a call through. They were also able to find parts of the system, such as loop-arounds, that allowed them to make conference calls with each other in a time when this was uncommon. They would also try their fingers, worn out from repetitive rotary dialing, at sending their voices racing back and forth across the U.S. tying up circuits to impress their friends with their technical prowess. This was a process known as tandem stacking. The phreaks would try to see how many tandems they could stack just to do it. Stacking up 60 tandems puts busy signals on 60 circuits, a technique that really put a drain on the system, something Ma Bell wasn’t too keen on. The phreaks thought the phone company was making a bigger deal out of it then they should, as there really weren’t that many people around who knew how to do this.

phreaksAuthor Phil Lapsley does an excellent job in bringing out the humanity of the awkward teens who got involved in these underground activities. He shows how much of a lifeline the phone was for a number of the phreaks, particularly the blind ones like Joe Engressia and Bill Acker. These guys truly idolized the phone system and its technology, and used it as a tool in maneuvering childhoods that were in some cases quite rough. Breaking the law was just a pesky detail that had to be overlooked as they left no circuit unturned in their electronic spelunking. Despite their run-ins with the authorities a number of the phreaks eventually ended up working on the inside. Acker, whose dial tone went silent in 2015, worked for the phone company for 27 years. His career had begun by wiring up an old rotary phone to a practice CW oscillator tuned to 2600 Hz.

The twilight of the phone phreaks coincides with the break-up of the AT&T monopoly. Yet even as the phone company moved on to other technologies that were prohibitive to the use of MF tones for gaining free access to the system, the phreaks themselves took to further involvements in radio and computers, some becoming heavily involved with VoIP. This book is a must read for anyone interested in networks and the history of a small underground subculture that has left its mark on the hackers busy breaking and making things in the world today.

This book review originally appeared in the August issue of the Q-Fiver, the newsletter of the OH-KY-IN Amateur Radio Society.

73 & 93

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