|Andy Zaayenga's Pick of the Month from the LabAutopedia Book List|
By Andy Zaayenga
Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell
Who remembers Captain Crunch and his infamous blue box used for making free long distance phone calls? If you have ever looked at your iPhone, cable box or latest gee-whiz software and wondered just how it works inside, then you should read this book. Further, if you've ever gone a step beyond and taken that shiny new box apart and burned a chip or used a software tool to modify that machine's behavior, then you MUST read this book.
Exploding the Phone is the result of five years of research by author Phil Lapsley, and his hard work shows in this fascinating bestseller. He presents a comprehensive technical history of the telephone along with the growth of AT&T into a monopoly and the eventual dismantling of that cartel into the Baby Bells. Into that chronicle Lapsley weaves the stories of the often-eccentric hackers whose thirst to understand the workings of the massive telephone network led them from inquisitive playfulness to transgression.
As we know, the pre-digital telephone system was built incrementally both in terms of size and technology. As AT&T implemented the automation required to take human operators out of every telephone connection, flaws were introduced. Most notably audible tones were introduced to automatically switch mechanical relays from one long distance trunk to another. It was these warbling tones that the aptly christened “phone phreaks” utilized to make free long distance calls. These technophiles also set up free conference calls, at that time prohibitively expensive, to act as massive chat lines for the hacker community. Although for the most part the exploits were done with an almost academic curiosity and a whimsical spirit of setting the knowledge free, the corporate caretakers of AT&T were not quite so nonchalant about the incursions and the loss of revenue. The book relates stories of the company detectives showing up at teenagers' houses to arrest them in front of their startled parents.
The story of the bosun whistle from the Cap’n Crunch cereal box used to make the critical 2,600 Hz long distance switching tone is delightful. Even more interesting is that the original whistle found to trigger free long distance was the Woolworth’s Davy Crockett Cat and Canary Bird Call Flute discovered in 1955 by the appropriately nicknamed phone phreak, Davy Crockett. The progression of the hacks from the plastic toys to the electronic blue box and its variants will interest any technically minded reader.
Lapsley explores the personalities of the characters central to the phone phreak underground. Many definitely fit the stereotype of the immensely talented techie with extremely poor social skills. It's interesting that there were a lot of blind phone phreaks – as an audio device, the telephone network with its switching tones was a natural for those focused on hearing over seeing. The uses hackers found for the discovered capabilities could be humorous, as they experimented to see just how far away they could accomplish long distance calls or would prank call the White House or FBI offices.
I highly recommend Exploding the Phone. It is meticulously researched with detailed technical explanations accessible to all including the non-technical reader. It's a compelling history of the telephone overall with a focus on the 1950 to 1980 time period when these phone phreaks were exploiting the flaws in the system. Beyond that, the book is really about much more than the hackers. It is a narrative about the nature of curiosity and the insatiable exploration of technology, traits with which SLAS members can most certainly relate.
Publisher: Grove Press