The famed media theorist Marshall McLuhan dubbed the phone “an irresistible intruder in time and space.” In the 1950s, freaks (renamed phreaks in 1971) were the original phone intruders as they explored the telephone system by dialing around and listening to the clicks and beeps.
Of course, in order to get into that system, these explorers had to rely on either perfect pitch—like Josef “Joybubbles” Engressia, featured in this video, or some other hack to emit a 2600 hertz. Since each number dialed emitted a tone, phreaks learned that if they identified the tones and codes used by the telephone company, they could route their own calls. Phreaking worked because the phone was a sociotechnical system, with operators holding most of the power.
Phreaks learned to record the tones the operator dialed to patch the call through. Then, they could mimic the tones either by whistling or by purchasing a blue box device (an illegal preprogramed dialler), altogether circumventing the operator. Before the days of Apple, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs built and sold blue boxes.
One of the earliest phone phreaks, Joybubbles was a blind man with perfect pitch who could hum the tones. Today we’d call him a white hat hacker; he often reported his own fraud to the phone company, hoping they would hire him. A phreak named John Draper learned from others that the toy whistle found in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal produced the precise 2600 hertz frequency needed to manipulate the phone system—and he earned the name Captain Crunch in the doing. Some even trained canaries to sing the tone.
Many phreaks viewed the phones as one large computer system that could be radically altered once the infrastructure was known. As Captain Crunch told Esquire Magazine in 1971, “I’m learning about a system. The phone company is a System. A computer is a System. Do you understand? If I do what I do, it is only to explore a System. Computers. Systems. That’s my bag. The phone company is nothing but a computer.”
Prefiguring computer hackers, phreaks were interested in decoding systems and playfully experimenting with the communications infrastructure. As phone companies developed more sophisticated technology, phreaking became more difficult. But there are some groups, such as Phone Losers of America, still actively phreaking the system.