Captain Crunch and the phreaking scene
John Draper is the hacker’s hero for a reason. Not only did the electronics genius use a plastic toy from a cereal box to crack open the entire phone system, he also used his skills to befriend Steve Wozniak and wile his way out of prison “chores.”
True hackers don’t break into computer mainframes or other microchipped mazes with the intent of infiltrating the Pentagon or ripping off Big Business. They do it for the same reason people climb Mt. Everest: to see if they can.
John Draper’s father was a career Air Force man, and he thrived in the military environment. As a boy, Draper spent most of his time rummaging through the military bases, and scavenging for electronic parts which he added to the radio station he was building in his bedroom.
A natural-born tinkerer, Draper later joined the Air Force as a radar technician, where his fascination with electronic communication escalated. On a remote base in Maine, there was only one telephone for the soldiers to use, so he began studying Ma Bell’s technology, learning about things like access codes and trunk lines. In no time, he’d figured out a way to make free phone calls through the local switchboard.
After he left the Air Force, Draper continued to explore the inner workings of the phone company as a hobby and found some kindred spirits in the process. They called themselves “phone phreakers” and they had “meetings” via free telephone conference calls. One of the original phreakers was Joe Engressia, a young man who’d been born blind and had developed an ear for perfect pitch. One day he happened to be whistling a tune while on the phone and was immediately disconnected. He re-dialed the number, whistled the same song and was cut off at the same point. He called AT&T’s tech lab and asked an engineer why he kept getting disconnected. The unwitting engineer explained that the telephone switching systems worked on a 2600Hz tone, and that Joe must’ve somehow managed to hit that frequency with his whistle.
Not long after Engressia shared this information with the other phreakers, John Draper discovered that a toy boatswain’s whistle that was included in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal in the late 1960s could blow a perfect 2600Hz tone. Once a long-distance call had been initiated, the meter was running. When Bell’s equipment “heard” the 2600Hz sound, it was the signal that the call had been terminated, and one end of the trunk line was closed. However, when using the Crunch whistle, the other end of the trunk was kept open, and the person on that end of the line was now considered by the equipment to be an official telephone company operator, meaning they could call anywhere free of charge.
Draper and his good pal Steve Wozniak used this technology to build Blue Boxes, which could generate a variety of tones that would further manipulate Ma Bell’s intricate web of phone lines. Blue Boxing led to Black Boxing, Beige Boxing and other permutations of phone trickery gadgets.
The further the technology spread, the more it was utilized by “newbies” or folks who were unaware of the original gentlemanly culture of phreaking. Instead, they used it to disrupt businesses, harass government offices, and otherwise make mischief. The FBI decided to go after the supposed leader of the Phreak movement and make an example of him. John Draper was arrested in 1974 and convicted of wire fraud.
He served his sentence in California’s Lompoc Federal Prison, where he used his phreaking skills to survive. In most prison cultures, an inmate is destined to become someone’s “b****” unless he has something valuable to offer. In Draper’s case, he quickly converted the radio that he was allowed to keep in his cell into a receiver that monitored the walkie-talkie calls of prison guards. He also knew the various internal “loop” numbers of the telephone company so that he didn’t have to rely on collect calls when using his allotted pay phone time. Once his reputation quietly spread, he gained a level of cachet among his fellow inmates by giving informal classes in phreaking. Draper later commented that he was bemused by the fact that many of his “pupils” were barely literate, yet they could watch one demonstration and then construct their own radio receivers.