Origin Story

If I’d had better research skills back in my college days, I’d be a telecom legend today. Or a convicted criminal. Maybe both. Here’s how a bashful electrical engineering student and I got thisclose to becoming phone phreakers and stealing long distance service from Ma Bell in the mid-1970s. It closely parallels the story of another pair of college kids on the other side of the country who had better luck.

In my junior year at Duke, I lived in a dorm called House Z.

House Z at Duke University

Its inhabitants represented the wings and necks of on-campus students, split evenly between refugees from the disbanded Kappa Alpha fraternity and poor planners like myself who had neglected to turn in a housing request form the preceding year. House Z had three floors, perhaps 25 residents and just two telephones, only one of which could connect to the outside world.

The PSTN-capable phone was on the third floor; my hallmate Clyde Butler and I were on the second floor. Clyde was a shy EE candidate, while I was an English major. When I decried the injustice of living on the floor with no phone, Clyde observed that the electrical panel on our hall likely housed the phone lines for the building, and that it was a relatively simple matter to add an extension phone. “But that panel is locked, and we would need a phone,” Clyde continued.

“OK, I got this, Clyde.”

The lock yielded easily, and a wall-mount phone was sourced from one of the phone-rich new dorms on Duke’s campus. Clyde isolated the proper pair from the 25-pair cable and we soon had a working telephone concealed behind the panel door, later enhanced with a switch that toggled between the campus-only line on the first floor and the PSTN-capable line on the third floor. Clyde and I became minor underground heroes to the first- and second-floor (but not third-floor) residents of House Z.

Flush with success, we sought to up our game. A year earlier, in the October 1971 issue of Esquire magazine, Ron Rosenbaum had published his now-famous chronicle of efforts to steal long distance service from Ma Bell. Entitled “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” the article detailed how early hackers were spoofing the long-distance network to gain free long distance calls. Long distance calls were super expensive in 1972. Per the FCC (see page 280 of this report) a five-minute call from New York City to Chicago cost $1.75 during business hours, and was still $0.80 on nights and weekends. That’s about $2.00 and $0.92 per minute, respectively, in today’s dollars.

One of the interview subjects in Rosenbaum’s article had described how a Bell System engineer inadvertently revealed the secrets of conquering the long-distance kingdom. “[Bell] was careless enough to let some technical journal

Multi-frequency (MF) tone values, the Holy Grail.

publish the actual frequencies used to create all their multi-frequency tones. Just a theoretical article some Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer was doing about switching theory, and he listed the tones in passing.” (Here’s the article from the Bell System Technical Journal, November 1960. The chart listing the MF tone values is on page 1427.)

Clyde and I reasoned that, surely, Duke’s engineering library subscribed to the Bell System Technical Journal. But wherever they could, the Bell System had repossessed copies of that particular issue, so we were unable to get our hands on the necessary tones to hack long distance.

I continued tinkering with phone stuff after that, wiring our off-campus house the following year with bootleg extensions bought from RadioShack’s supply of retired European rotary dial phones. After college, I went to work for a mobile telephone and telephone answering service company that would eventually become the nation’s first Cellular One.

Here’s the “thisclose” part, though. When Steve Jobs died in October 2011, the New York Times obituary described how Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs first met:

The spark that ignited their partnership was provided by Mr. Wozniak’s mother. Mr. Wozniak had graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, when she sent him an article from the October 1971 issue of Esquire magazine. The article, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” by Ron Rosenbaum, detailed an underground hobbyist culture of young men known as phone phreaks who were illicitly exploring the nation’s phone system. . . . Mr. Wozniak and Mr. Jobs later collaborated on building and selling blue boxes, devices that were widely used for making free — and illegal — phone calls. They raised a total of $6,000 from the effort.

Damn! So close!