Hackers hack computers. But wait—not so fast! Before hackers were identified with computers, hackers hacked phones. Phreaking is the age-old practice of hacking the phone system to make it do things it wasn’t intended to, especially to give you free long-distance calls.

Phreaking is essential background for hacking today: all the elements of hacking are there. A big, powerful corporation (check: AT&T, the state-regulated monopoly phone service in the US). A complicated system with lots of holes in it (check: the telephone interchange system, with its exchanges, operators, technical manuals, and phones in every home and street corner). Colorful lore (check: the toy whistle from a Cap’n Crunch cereal box that made exactly the tones needed to hack a phone). Social engineering opportunities (check: operators and technicians possessed crucial knowledge about the workings of the system, and were often easy to talk to on the phone). And the list goes on.

Phreaking connected up the largest most complex technical communication system of the mid-twentieth century with the 1960s counter-cultural threads (Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies were sometime phreaks), anti-monopoly sentiment, impish pleasure in working around a big bureaucratic system perceived as unjust, and a love of taking things apart. Phreaking shows how hacking is not just about a particular technology, but also about the attitude towards power, towards large technical systems, and towards humor and joy.

– Chris Kelty