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

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

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

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

by Phil Lapsley


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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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802122285
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 02/11/2014
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 781,835
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt




Jake Locke set down his cup and looked more closely at the classified ad. It was early afternoon on a clear spring day in Cambridge in 1967. Locke, an undergrad at Harvard University, had just gotten out of bed. A transplant from southern California, he didn't quite fit in with Harvard's button-down culture — another student had told him he looked like a "nerdy California surfer," what with his black-framed eyeglasses, blond hair, blue eyes, and tall, slim build. Now in the midst of his sophomore slump, Locke found himself spending a lot of time sleeping late, cutting classes, and reading the newspaper to find interesting things to do. Pretty much anything seemed better than going to classes, in fact.

It was a slow news day. The Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, didn't have much in the way of interesting articles, so Locke once again found himself reading the classified ads over breakfast. He had become something of a connoisseur of these little bits of poetry — people selling cars, looking for roommates, even the occasional kooky personal ad probably intended as a joke between lovers — all expressed in a dozen or so words.

But this ad was different. It had been running for a while and it had started to bug him.

wanted harvard mit Fine Arts no. 13 notebook. (121 pages) & 40 page reply K.K. & C.R. plus 2,800; battery; m.f. El presidente no esta aqui asora, que lastima. B. David Box 11595 St. Louis, MO 63105.

Locke had seen similar classified ads from students who had lost their notes for one class or another and were panicking as exams rolled around. They often were placed in the Crimson in the hopes that some kind soul had found their notes and would return them. Fine Arts 13 was the introductory art appreciation class at Harvard, so that fit.

But nothing else about the ad made any sense. Fine Arts 13 wasn't offered at MIT. And what was all the gibberish afterward? 2,800? Battery? M.f., K.K., C.R.? What was with the Spanish? And why was somebody in St. Louis, Missouri, running an ad in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looking for a notebook for a class at Harvard? Locke had watched the ad run every day for the past few weeks. Whoever they were, and whatever it was, they clearly wanted this notebook. Why were they so persistent?

One way to find out.

Locke looked around for a piece of paper and a pen. He wrote: "Dear B. David: I have your notebook. Let's talk. Sincerely, Jake."

He dropped the letter in the mail on his way into Harvard Square to find something interesting to do.

An envelope with a St. Louis, Missouri, postmark showed up in Locke's mailbox a week later. Locke opened the envelope and read the single sheet of paper. Or rather, he tried to read it. It wasn't in English. It seemed to be written in some sort of alien hieroglyphics. It was brief, only a paragraph or so long. The characters looked familiar somehow but not enough that he could decipher them.

Locke showed the letter to everyone he saw that day but nobody could read it. Later that evening, as Locke sat at the kitchen table in his dorm room and stared at the letter, trying to puzzle it out, one of his roommates came home. Shocked that Locke might actually be doing something that looked like homework, his roommate asked what he was working on. Locke passed the letter across the table and told him about it.

His roommate took one look and said, "It looks like Russian."

Locke said, "That's what I thought. But the characters don't seem right."

"Yeah. They're not. In fact ..." His roommate's voice trailed off for a moment. "In fact, they're mirror writing."


"You know, mirror writing. The letters are written backwards. See?"

Locke looked. Sure enough: backwards.

Locke and his roommate went to the mirror and transcribed the reversed lettering. It was Cyrillic — Russian letters. Fortunately, Locke's roommate was taking a Russian class. They sat back down at the table and translated the letter.

"Dear Jake," the letter read. "Thank you very much for your reply. However, I seriously doubt that you have what I need. I would strongly advise you to keep to yourself and not interfere. This is serious business and you could get into trouble." Signed, B. David.

Locke sat back. Someone had put a cryptic ad in the newspaper. He'd responded. They sent him a letter. In mirror writing. In Russian. In 1967. During the cold war.

Spy ring.

It just didn't get much cooler than this, Locke figured. Intriguing. Terrifying, even. And far, far better than going to class.

Locke mailed his reply that day — in English, and not in mirror writing. "Dear B. David: Actually, I do have your notebook and I would like to talk to you. Sincerely, Jake."

Four days went by before the mailman brought Locke an odd letter, a piece of card stock folded in half and taped at the top. The fold line was perforated so that it could be torn in half. The writing was in English this time.

"Dear Jake, if you have the information I need, you should be able to complete the other half of this card and mail it back to me. Then we can continue our discussions. Sincerely, B. David."

Locke looked at the other half of the postcard. It had a handful of questions on it:

Complete the following sequence: 604, 234, 121, ___

What does M.F. stand for?

What equipment were the students at Harvard and MIT using?


Locke spent every waking hour over the next several days working on the postcard questions. The numbers repeated over and over in his mind: 604, 234, 121 ... 604, 234, 121 ... 604, 234, 121 ...


A phone number? It wasn't directory assistance — Locke knew that would have been 555-1212 — but it sort of sounded right. Worth a shot, anyway. He picked up the phone and dialed. A woman's businesslike voice answered on the first ring.

"Cleaner clean," she said.

"Excuse me?" said Locke.

"Cleaner clean inward," the woman repeated, more distinctly this time.

Locke hung up. He stared at the phone. Cleaner clean? Inward?

Where was area code 604, anyway? The phone book said British Columbia. And where was that? Western Canada. Locke looked around his dorm room, found an atlas, and flipped to the page on British Columbia. He scanned the map. The big cities had names he recognized, names like Vancouver and Prince George. The smaller towns had less familiar names. Names like Kamloops. Squamish. Quesnel. Chilanko.

Kleena Kleene.

At dinner that night Locke mentioned his phone call to Steve, another of his roommates. Steve said, "Huh. That's interesting. My girlfriend Suzy is an inward."

"What? What's an inward?" asked Locke.

"It's some kind of special telephone operator. You should talk to her, she might be able to help you figure some of this stuff out. She lives over in Revere. Give her a call."

Locke did. Suzy explained that an inward is an "operator's operator." When an operator needs assistance in making a call, she calls the inward operator for the destination city. The inward operator then completes the call to a local number.

"So how do I call an inward?" Locke asked her.

"You can't. Inwards have special phone numbers that only operators can dial. If you wanted to call the New York inward, you'd have to dial something like 212-049-121. So 121 is what gets you the inward, and 049 is a routing code inside of New York, and New York is the 212 area code. But you can't dial numbers like 049 or 121 from a regular phone."

Locke explained that he seemed to have found a way to call an inward operator from his regular phone by dialing 604-234-1212.

"Well," Suzy said, "I'm mystified. You shouldn't be able to. I don't know, maybe you found a glitch. But here's how you can tell. Call them up and ask them to complete a call to somebody. If they're really an inward, they'll be able to do it no problem."

"I don't know anybody in Canada," Locke said.

"That's okay. An inward can call anywhere. And we sometimes get calls from the test board within the phone company asking us to complete calls to places for testing purposes. Just tell them you're with the test board. Be confident and self-assured and act like you know what you're doing and they won't give you any trouble."

"Okay. I'll try that. Hey, any idea what 'M.F.' might stand for?"

"Well," Suzy replied, "it could be multifrequency."

"Multifrequency. What's that?" Locke asked.

"It's the system that operators use to make calls. It's kind of like those touch tones used for push-button dialing, but it sounds different." Locke's dorm phone was rotary dial, but he knew what touch tones were — they had been introduced just a few years earlier.

"Okay. Hey, thanks, Suzy." They said good-bye. He hung up.

Locke picked up the phone again and dialed 604-234-1212. Once again the businesslike female voice answered.

"Kleena Kleene inward."

"Hi, uh, yes," Locke said. "This is the test board. Could you connect me to 619-374-8491, please?"

"One moment." There was a pause. The long-distance hiss got louder. A click. Another pause. More hiss. Another click. Then a ringing signal.

"Hello?" It was his friend Dave in San Diego.

Locke chatted with his friend for a few minutes and then hung up. He felt as if he were floating. It seemed magical. "Act like you know what you're doing and they won't give you any trouble." It worked!

Two postcard questions down. One left: "What equipment were the students at MIT using?"

Once again, another roommate came to Locke's rescue — - fortunately, Locke lived in a suite and had lots of roommates. "We're talking about phones and MIT students, right? I remember an article in the Crimson about a year ago about some MIT students who got in trouble for playing with the telephone. Could that be it?"

"Maybe," said Locke. "But how am I gonna find an old copy of the Crimson?"

"The library?" his friend suggested.

This was a challenge. Locke had never been to the university's library before.

Locke was surprised to find it was close to his dorm and that other students seemed able to direct him there. Soon Locke was flipping through page after page of old Crimsons. An hour later, in an issue from almost a year earlier in 1966, he found what he was looking for.

Five Students Psych Bell System, Place Free Long Distance Calls

Five local students, four from Harvard and one from M.I.T., spent eight months making long distance and international phone calls as guests of the Bell System before they were finally discovered.

The telephone company accepted the news without bitterness, however, merely impounding the 121-page Fine Arts 13 notebook that contained the records of their "researches" and requiring them to submit a full report, which ran to 40 double-spaced pages, of what they had done.

Mesmerized, Locke read on, the words from the classified ad running through his head. The article described how, starting in 1962, the students had used inward operators — including one in Kleena Kleene — to complete calls all over the world. It tantalized with an infuriatingly brief description of how it was possible to build an electronic device to control the telephone system for "$50 of common electronic components." The article concluded abruptly, stating that the students were caught in April 1963 when a telephone company employee turned them in.

Locke was elated. Pieces were falling into place, and now he had enough to respond to B. David. But the article was short on details. He needed to find out more. He needed to talk to the original Harvard and MIT students. Locke jotted down the name of the article's author, another student at Harvard.

The next day he filled out the reply postcard and dropped it in the mail to B. David. Then he called the Crimson reporter to pump him for details. The reporter wasn't very helpful. He didn't know the names of the Harvard or MIT students, he said, and it turned out that he had gotten most of his information from an article in the Boston Herald. He had then talked to the Herald reporter to get some additional context.

"Didn't the Herald reporter know the names of the students?" Locke asked.

"Oh, sure, but he wouldn't give them to me. And I doubt he'll give them to you either," the Crimson reporter replied.

Back to the library. Locke dug up the Herald article. It described the Harvard and MIT students making calls to the president of Mexico and gave a name — "blue box" — to the electronic device that had allowed them to control the telephone network. It spoke of their staying up all night, of spending eighty hours a week on their research, of dialing ten thousand numbers over two to three days to find the information they needed. It even said the students were questioned by FBI agents who thought they were stealing defense secrets.

Locke looked up the telephone number for the newspaper. Be confident and self-assured and act like you know what you're doing. He drew a deep breath, picked up the phone, dialed the Herald, and asked to be connected to the reporter who wrote the article. When the reporter answered, Locke politely explained who he was and what he was looking for.

"This is Special Agent Stevenson with the FBI Boston Field Office. We've had a report that there has been some new activity related to an incident that occurred a few years ago with some Harvard and MIT students misusing the telephone system. We're trying to reach them to talk to them about this but we don't have current contact information for them. I saw your article about them from a year ago or so. Do you have telephone numbers for any of them?"

Not a problem, the reporter replied. He'd be happy to help.

Before Locke had a chance to call any of the students his phone rang. It was B. David and he wanted to know about the Fine Arts 13 notebook. Oh, yes, that notebook: the one that Locke didn't actually have. Locke did his best to keep up the charade. Well, he admitted, he wasn't actually one of the Harvard or MIT students but he knew them. He was a friend of theirs. He had participated in some of their "research."

B. David grilled him. It quickly became apparent that Locke didn't know as much as he was claiming. As Locke would later recall, "You can only fake things so far before they begin to crumble." Locke admitted the truth.

Surprisingly, B. David wasn't mad, and now that the cat was out of the bag the two had a pleasant conversation. B. David explained that there was an informal network of telephone enthusiasts like himself, and that he had been trying to reach the Harvard and MIT students to talk to them about their exploits. "Welcome to our world," he said. Locke asked for pointers. B. David demurred on details: "I don't want to give you too much information. I will tell you one thing, though: look for missing exchanges. Look for patterns. I'll give you a call back in a few weeks to see how you're doing."

This all seemed fascinating to Locke. He called the former MIT student — now living in Berkeley, California — whose number he had gotten from the Herald reporter. The student was friendly enough but, like B. David, was also reluctant to provide much information. The MIT student explained that he and his friends had been caught and interrogated by the FBI, although not actually prosecuted. He stressed that Locke could get in trouble playing with this stuff and that Locke should stay away from the whole thing. Locke pressed him for more information. Finally the MIT student told him, "If you really want to find out more, everything you need to know is in the library."

Great, thought Locke, a third trip to the library.

But what library would have the sort of information he was looking for? Some research led him to the physics library and something called the Bell System Technical Journal. The one term Locke knew to look up was "multifrequency." From the journal's index he quickly located an article from the November 1960 issue titled "Signaling Systems for Control of Telephone Switching." It was technical but not so technical that Locke couldn't understand a good chunk of it. It laid out in detail exactly how certain aspects of the telephone system worked, including the multifrequency signaling system. This article plus the Crimson and Herald stories, as well as his conversations with B. David and the former MIT student, gave him everything he needed to get serious about this stuff.

Locke started to spend a lot of time on the telephone. "Look for missing exchanges, look for patterns," B. David had told him. Locke knew that an exchange was the first three digits of a local telephone number. By making a careful study of the telephone book and doing a lot of dialing, Locke discovered that there were indeed missing exchanges in the downtown Boston area. When Locke found a missing exchange, he would start dialing all the telephone numbers in it. All ten thousand of them.


Excerpted from "Exploding The Phone"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Philip D. Lapsley.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Steve Wozniak xi

A Note on Names and Tenses xv

Chapter 1 Fine Arts 13 1

Chapter 2 Birth of a Playground 14

Chapter 3 Cat and Canary 29

Chapter 4 The Largest Machine in the World 41

Chapter 5 Blue Box 51

Chapter 6 "Some People Collect Stamps" 64

Chapter 7 Headache 85

Chapter 8 Blue Box Bookies 98

Chapter 9 Little Jojo Learns to Whistle 117

Chapter 10 Bill Acker Learns to Play the Flute 135

Chapter 11 The Phone Freaks of America 147

Chapter 12 The Law of Unintended Consequences 167

Chapter 13 Counterculture 185

Chapter 14 Busted 201

Chapter 15 Pranks 218

Chapter 16 The Story of a War 230

Chapter 17 A Little Bit Stupid 249

Chapter 18 Snitch 262

Chapter 19 Crunched 276

Chapter 20 Twilight 296

Chapter 21 Nightfall 311

Epilogue 325

Sources and Notes 337

Acknowledgments 393

Index 399

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

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. It captures a moment in time that might otherwise have been lost forever."—Kevin Poulsen, author of Kingpin

“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. Even the phone company had a soft spot for these misfits. They are as well-behaved a band of troublemakers as you are ever likely to meet." – Robert Sabbag, author of Snow Blind

“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.”—Cliff Stoll, author of The Cuckoo's Egg

“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

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