Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell

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Before smartphones, back even before the Internet and personal computer, a misfit group of technophiles, blind teenagers, hippies, and outlaws figured out how to hack the world’s largest machine: the telephone system. Starting with Alexander Graham Bell’s revolutionary “harmonic telegraph,” by the middle of the twentieth century the phone system had grown into something extraordinary, a web of cutting-edge switching machines and human operators that linked together millions of people like never before. But the ...

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Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell

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Before smartphones, back even before the Internet and personal computer, a misfit group of technophiles, blind teenagers, hippies, and outlaws figured out how to hack the world’s largest machine: the telephone system. Starting with Alexander Graham Bell’s revolutionary “harmonic telegraph,” by the middle of the twentieth century the phone system had grown into something extraordinary, a web of cutting-edge switching machines and human operators that linked together millions of people like never before. But the network had a billion-dollar flaw, and once people discovered it, things would never be the same.

Exploding the Phone tells this story in full for the first time. It traces the birth of long-distance communication and the telephone, the rise of AT&T’s monopoly, the creation of the sophisticated machines that made it all work, and the discovery of Ma Bell’s Achilles’ heel. Phil Lapsley expertly weaves together the clandestine underground of “phone phreaks” who turned the network into their electronic playground, the mobsters who exploited its flaws to avoid the feds, the explosion of telephone hacking in the counterculture, and the war between the phreaks, the phone company, and the FBI.

The product of extensive original research, Exploding the Phone is a ground-breaking, captivating book.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
An Amazon, Seattle Times, and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year

“Phil Lapsley's Exploding the Phone is an authoritative, jaunty and enjoyable account of their sometimes comical, sometimes impressive and sometimes disquieting misdeeds. . . . The author's love of his subject pervades Exploding the Phone and persuaded this reader, at least, that the phone phreaks are worthy of thoughtful attention.”
Wall Street Journal

“Brilliantly researched.”

“A fantastically fun romp through the world of early phone hackers, who sought free long distance, and in the end helped launch the computer era.”
Seattle Times

“Lapsley traces the history of long-distance technology and tells the story of this first generation of network hackers—among them Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (who wrote the introduction).”
Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A rollicking history of the telephone system and the hackers who exploited its flaws. [Lapsley] weaves together a brilliant tapestry of richly detailed stories. . . . A first-rate chronicle of an unexamined subculture.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A fascinating book steeped in the rich history of phreakers and hackers.”
—Xeni Jardin, BoingBoing.net

“As a bit of tech history—with themes that resonate today—it can't be beat.

“Long before we ever came onto the scene there was . . . a ragtag group of folks who took the global phone network as the target of their hacking. Exploding the Phone is among the most comprehensive and engaging histories of that community ever published.”
—Electronic Frontier Foundation, “EFF’s Reading List: Books of 2013”

Exploding the Phone is an extraordinary book. . . . To have such a significant, yet underground story captured in such brilliant detail is rare, especially without turning it into a one-sided hero’s tale. Exploding the Phone is nearly perfect. I have three print copies, all paid for and autographed. You can’t have too many miracles lying around the house.”
—Jason Scott

“Eminently interesting and completely original.”
—Daily Beast

“A rocking great read about the unknown teenagers and hobbyists who defied AT&T when it was foolish to do so. In Lapsley's magnificent research he has uncovered what amounts to a secret pre-history of the computer and internet revolutions.”
—Tim Wu, author of The Master Switch

“With terrific reporting and story-telling. Phil Lapsley has put voluptuous flesh and bones on the legendary tales of the phone phreaks.”
—Steven Levy, author of Hackers and In the Plex

"The definitive account of the first generation of network hackers. . . . At turns a technological love story, a counter cultural history and a generation-spanning epic, [Exploding the Phone] is obsessively researched and told with wit and clarity."
—Kevin Poulsen, news editor of Wired.com and author of Kingpin

“At once enjoyable and educational.”

“With verve and technical accuracy, Phil Lapsley captures the excitement of the days when phone hackers explored Ma Bell's cabled paradise of dial phones and electromechanical switches. . . . . Here's the intriguing story of those first electronic adventurers—tinkerers who'd bypass a pay phone with a couple transistors or reach around the world by whistling.”
—Cliff Stoll, author of The Cuckoo's Egg

"A fascinating story about a period of time that I lived through but didn't know much about. I can't imagine how much work Lapsley had to do to write this book—it is remarkably well-researched, fun to read, and deserves great praise."
—Vint Cerf, Internet Pioneer and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google, Inc.

“Before he was the god of sexy computers, Steve Jobs sold blue boxes to Hollywood stars and Bay Area hippies. Exploding the Phone connects the cultural lines that run from hacking Ma Bell to building personal computers. Here, for your amusement, is the story of the frothy counterculture that helped create today’s connected world.”
—Thomas A. Bass, author of The Eudaemonic Pie and The Spy Who Loved Us

"Seldom are criminals this much fun."
—Robert Sabbag, author of Snow Blind

“An extremely interesting and engrossing read.”

“A highly engaging history of the telephone itself and plenty of intrigue.”

"Phil Lapsley's great history of those hackers is packed with schemes, plots, discoveries, and brainy, oddball personalities. . . . [The stories] he uncovers—and the questions he poses, about the nature of the relationship between criminality, curiosity, and technology—is compelling, fascinating stuff."
Portland Mercury

“Lapsley takes up one of the more unusual chapters of the American underground. . . . Lapsley’s knack for detail and his impressive research will have tech phreaks and non-phreaks, well, freaking. . . . It’s impossible to set this book aside. . . . One way or another Exploding The Phone will probably be one of the most talked about books this year.”

Exploding the Phone manages to pull of the seemingly impossible—make one nostalgic for the days of busy signals, operators and rotary dials.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“Always entertaining and clear without being excessively technical . . . a well-documented work of historical value. . . . Highly recommended.”

“Lapsley more than ably conveys the nuances of this fascinating slice of technological history . . . and his enlightening new interviews with most of the major phreaks as well as AT&T security officers form one of the most significant levels of his tremendous research.”
School Library Journal

“Lapsley’s delightful account . . . sheds light on an underappreciated chapter in the history of technology.”

Publishers Weekly
In 1967, an enterprising young Harvard student, Jake Locke (the names in this book have been changed), stumbled upon an intriguing ad in the Harvard Crimson; curiosity piqued, Jake soon discovered, with the help of the phone company’s own materials and a few other interested people, that he could rig a “blue box” that would allow him to subvert the phone system and make free phone calls. Drawing on exclusive interviews with former “phone phreaks,” FBI agents, former Ma Bell employees, as well as on extensive research on telephone systems and declassified government documents, technology writer Lapsley smartly chronicles the adventures of many of these individuals, including two youngsters named Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, whose construction of a blue box set them on the road to developing future culture-changing technologies. For example, Lapsley tells the story of David Condon, who created a device that would mimic phone tones in order to fool the system into bypassing the operator for long-distance calls, and Ralph Barclay, whose quick study of the November 1960 issue of the Bell System Technical Journal allowed him to manipulate the phone system to his advantage to make free calls. In a perhaps too grandiose, though momentarily provocative, conclusion, Lapsley points out that the “phone phreaks taught us that there is a societal benefit to tolerating, perhaps even nurturing the crazy ones... for if Wozniak and Jobs had gone to jail for making blue boxes, we might never have had Apple.” (Feb.)
Library Journal
Tech industry veteran Lapsley uses more than 100 interviews and 400 Freedom of Information Act requests to present the virtually unknown battle between phone companies and overcurious young tech whizzes determined to explore Ma Bell's networks. With accuracy and integrity, he pieces together a believably authentic re-creation of 1967, a highly significant period in telecommunications history. The author's background in electrical engineering and management well qualifies him to contextualize the "phone phreak" movement. While he also devotes attention to the interests of the corporation and the government, he clearly intends his readers' sympathies to lie with those who merely wanted to know everything about how phones worked, and justly so: their efforts led to the first "online" social networks (the telephonic equivalents of cyberspace), and, according to its founders, Apple. This differentiates Lapsley's book from existing related histories of the telephone, telephone companies, the computer, and computer hacking, and from articles on phone phreaks proper. VERDICT Particularly resonant to members of any counterculture, this fascinating narrative captures the ethos of hacking as it existed before the personal-computer era.—Ricardo Laskaris, York Univ. Lib., Toronto
Kirkus Reviews
A rollicking history of the telephone system and the hackers who exploited its flaws. Before the mid-20th century, long-distance phone calls were the domain of the now-extinct telephone operator. Beginning in the 1950s, AT&T introduced new equipment that allowed customers to place long-distance calls directly. These new switching machines communicated by sending tones back and forth at a specific pitch: 2,600 Hz, "or seventh octave E for the musically inclined." In 1955, David Condon happened to stumble upon a Davy Crockett whistle at his local Woolworth's which made just such a tone. Although the term would not be coined until years later, when Condon trilled his Crockett whistle into the handset, he became the first phone phreak--"someone obsessed with understanding, exploring, and playing with the telephone network." In his debut, technology consultant Lapsley lays out an incredible clandestine history of these first hackers, who not only tricked the phone system into letting them make calls for free, but would show others how to do the same. They eventually built small devices called "blue boxes" so anyone with one of these boxes could cheat the phone company. Lapsley deftly escorts readers through the development of the modern telephone system (and how it was exploited), covering intricate details of phone technology with prose that is both attentive to detail yet easy to understand for general readers. Perhaps more importantly, the author weaves together a brilliant tapestry of richly detailed stories--the people and events he describes virtually come to life on the page. Taken as a whole, the book becomes nothing short of a love letter to the phone phreaks who "saw joy and opportunity in the otherwise mundane." A first-rate chronicle of an unexamined subculture.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802122285
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/11/2014
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 305,001
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Phil Lapsley co-founded two high technology companies in the San Francisco Bay Area and was a consultant at McKinsey & Company where he advised Fortune 100 companies on strategy. He holds a Master's degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences from U. C. Berkeley and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Lapsley has been interviewed by NPR and the BBC and quoted in The New York Times and Boston Globe on telephone and computer security issues, and is the author of one textbook, sixteen patents, an Internet standard, and many technical articles.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2014

    Great Read, Down to Earth, Interesting, and Comprehensive

    Gives insight into the history of phone phreaking as well as a the Bell System and AT&T. It's a very interesting read and includes technical details of how phreaking was executed while keeping everything down to earth so that almost anyone interested in the topic can enjoy it without a comprehensive understanding of telecommunications devices.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2014

    An excellent history of phone phreaking and the hacker culture it helped to spawn!

    I'm really impressed with the thoroughness and tone of this book; the historical treatment of phone phreaking is well-balanced with the backstory and technical details, and the book give readers an insight into how the culture of 'phreaking' led to hacking in general. I recommend it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews

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