• Todd Strasser

When Phone Calls Were Expensive


Among the more amusing developments in the fledgling world of tech back in 1969 was the invention of the blue box, which allowed folks to make free long-distance phone calls all over the world. Yes, you who are too young to remember, long-distance phone calls once cost money. Often, a lot of money.

It all began in the early 1960s, when engineers at the phone company (there was only one phone company, Bell Telephone, back then), decided to use an audio tone with a frequency of 2600 Hz to route calls over its long-distance trunk lines. They chose 2600 Hz because it was not present in normal speech, and therefore they assumed that someone speaking on the phone would not accidentally access a long-distance trunk line.

According to legend, the engineers at Ma Bell had not anticipated young Joey Engressia (aka Joybubbles) who accidentally discovered that he could hit the magic frequency by whistling. Eventually, he and other phone phreaks trained themselves to whistle 2600 Hz to access trunk lines. They also learned how to route phone calls by using certain patterns of whistles (think Morse code). Phone phreaking became even easier when it was discovered that the small plastic whistle included as a free gift in boxes of Cap'n Crunch cereal generated a 2600 Hz tone when one of the whistle's two holes was covered.

Eventually someone created the blue box, which produced the 2600 Hz tone electrically, and the sub-culture of phone phreaking took off. Among the early initiates were Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who would go on the create Apple.

It is said that on one occasion Wozniak reached Vatican City and identified himself as Henry Kissinger (imitating Kissinger's German accent) and asked to speak to the Pope (who was sleeping at the time). Like many phreaks, Wozniak claimed he became one “to explore the phone company as a system, to learn the codes and tricks. I'd talk to the London operator, and convince her I was a New York operator. After six months I quit. I was so pure. Now I realize others were not as pure, they were just trying to make money. But then I thought we were all pure.”

Among the impure weren’t just those who wanted to make free phone calls, but drug dealers and other criminals because calls were not only free, but were virtually impossible to trace with the technology available at the time.

Eventually Ma Bell got wise and new systems incorporating digital switching were invented to end the use of the blue box. But I find it rather ironic that the two guys who were “so pure” and figured out how to use phones for free went on to charge so much for their phones that today Apple is the world’s most valuable company.

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