Last month in the American Iconoclasts series we looked at the bardic prowess of Ray Hicks. This month we are going to explore the phreakery of Joybubbles, one of those original blind hackers who explored Ma Bells telephone network with his ability to whistle 2600 hz.
(If you are interested in the background of WHY I am writing these notes on American weirdos you can read this post by John Michael Greer on Johnny Appleseed's America.)
The history of phone phreaking has fascinated me since I was a kid and first learned that people explored the telephone network as a hobby. In junior high I learned a trick using a paper clip on a payphone to get free phone calls -usually back home in Westwood from Cheviot telling my parents I'd be out skateboarding longer -or asking for a ride. Or to page someone to try and get some weed. I remember being sold a joint of oregano instead.
I always thought I'd like to learn to phone phreak, but that era was already mostly dead out just as I was learning about it. Instead I got on to bulletin board systems before right around the time America Online was getting online. The phreaks still called to my imagination.
When I read the book Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley I got a much more intimate history of the phreaks behind the phones. One of those was a guy named Joybubbles. He was born in Richmond Virginia on 25 May 1949, as Josef Carl Engressia, Jr.
Joybubbles was a maverick who had perfect pitch. That talent allowed him to whistle his way through the phone system. 2600 hertz was the magic key to get you into the Ma Bell's magic telecommunications kingdom.
A bit more background may be necessary here. It all dates back to the time AT&T implemented automatic switches. These used tone dialing, a form of in-band signaling. There were tones used intended only for AT&T personell, but if a person with a phone happened to know those tones, they could use them even if they didn't work for the company. The 2600 hz tone caused a phone switch to think a call had ended while still leaving the carrier line open, allowing those who knew how to do it to make free long distance and international calls -at a time when these were very expensive.
It was a huge loophole in the phone system the phreaks started to exploit and build a culture around. Joybubbles is credited with having discovered the tone around 1957, though at that time he still went by Joe Engressia. He was seven years old and blind. He figured out that whistling the fourth E above middle C (a frequency of 2637.02 Hz) would stop a dialed phone recording. Not knowing what he had done, he called up the phone company and asked why the recordings had stopped. Joe Engressia is considered to be the father of phreaking. After he learned what it did, he began to use the ability to make friends and talk on the phone with people around the country.
Other phreaks started figuring out the 2600 secret as well. Bill Acker ("Bill from New York" on the phone lines) figured out how the operating principles of the network. He used a tape recorder to play a 2600 tone to the same effect. John Draper who was friends with Joe discovered the whistles that came as a free toy in Cap'n Crunch boxes produced the necessary tone, and he took his nome de phreak from the sugary cereal.
When Joe went to the University of South Florida in the late 1960s he earned himself the nickname "the Whistler" for his many mighty phone feats. He had figured out how to make the phone company think he was calling from a different location, thus circumventing the chance of being traced, and more importantly, the chance of getting billed, or worse. Still, he did get caught and disciplined by the University.
After picking up a degree in philosophy he moved to Tennessee where he continued to be a phreak. Eventually the phone detectives tracked him down. The phone company SBT&T first noticed his phreaking activities in summer 1968, and an employee of the Florida Bell Telephone Company illegally monitored Engressia's telephone conversations before ratting him out to the Feds.
He was arrested and charged with malicious mischief. It might have been mischief, but he was just having fun, talking to people, exploring the network, and seeing what he could do. He got a fair amount of publicity from his arrest and the public adored him as a blind genius. It also helped spread the art of phreaking to others who wouldn't have heard about it had news not ran with the story.
He subsequently gave up phreaking, but remained active with ham radio. It shouldn't be suprising but many phreaks were also hams. Joe had the call sign WB0RPA, and held an amateur extra class license, the highest grade issued. He also earned both a General radiotelephone operator license and a commercial radiotelegraph operator's license, as well as a ship radar endorsement on these certificates. He even qualified for the now-obsolete aircraft radiotelegraph endorsement on the latter license, a license few people rarely got in the first place.
He also remained active operating phone story lines. Story lines and joke lines were something phone enthusiasts put together with rudimentary answering machines. A number was given out for the line, and a person could call and listen to the recording, of jokes, the story, or whatever other subject the operator chose to speak about. "Stories and Stuff" was the name of one his lines which he usually updated on the weekend. In the early 1980s, he ran a phone line called the "Zzzzyzzerrific Funline." It was listed in the very last entry in the phone book. On the Zzzzyzzerrific Funline he called himself Highrise Joe and would rant about how much he loved Valleyfair amusement park. Another regular topic he talked about was Up with People, a non-profit that promotes a five-month program involving travel, the performing arts, volunteering, and various workshops focused around intercultural communication to teach young adults how to interact in a multi-cultural environment and create change in communities with varying needs.
In the 1980's Joe started using and then adopted the name Joybubble's. This was followed by a decision to quit being an adult and leave his responsibilities behind him. Part of this decision came as his way of reclaiming the childhood he had lost as someone who had been abused as a kid.
In 1982 he moved to Minneapolis where he established the Church of Eternal Childhood. He became an ordained minister and set it up as a non-profit. The visionary aim of his church was to help adults reclaim the joys of childhood. He lived a monastic lifestyle in support of this goal, supporting himself on disability with occassional side gigs doing research on smells for the scent industry. Part of the outreach of his church involved reading to kids at library's and setting up phone calls to kids with terminal illnesses. He neve did lose the love of the phone.
In 1991 he changed his name legally to Joybubbles. He used the name as the line in the sand between the unhappiness of his own childhood and the life he made for himself.
From the time he changed his name until his death on August 8, 2007 he continued to do the work he felt mattered most: spreading a sense of childlike wonder to the world.
“I wish everybody would take a little time, even if it’s only once a month, to get out of the rat race into the sandbox and play like a child.”
From his little apartment in Minneapolis he reached out across the telephone to people all over the world to give them his unique take on life, and spread his joy.
“People ask me: ‘What’s your secret of happiness? You seem to be happy most of the time, when we meet up with you.’ Well, I’ll tell ya: I think one of my greatest secrets of happiness is that I can cry really hard when I need to, and I can let myself feel way, way sad. I think that crying is not a breakdown; it’s a breakthrough, and sometimes when I’m putting myself together, I have to let myself come apart.”
.:. .:. .:.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.