Buy John's new book:
Beyond The Littel Blue Box
Due to the Trademark of
Cap'n Crunch® cereal,
John always spells
his nickname "Captain Crunch".
References to the breakfast cereal,
and the whistle that came inside the box
still use the ®.
The long distance telephone network was, and still is, a pretty marvelous piece of technology. And technology was much simpler, and much more expensive in days gone by! The Bell system had to control the network, and let various parts of it know what to do. To do this, they used sets of tones, which could be carried over the network itself, since the network was optimized to transmist sounds down the wires. After all, your voice, in it's elemental form, is simply sounds to the telephone network.
When you picked up your telephone handset and dialed with Touch Tones®, your telephone dial produced a certain set of frequencies. If, however, you asked a Telephone Company operator to place the call for you, her touch tone pad put out a second set of frequencies, which directly controlled the Bell System's "Long Lines" network! John Draper, the infamous Captain Crunch (The cereal's trademark is why he only spells it out), and others found these frequencies just at a time when electronic parts were getting cheaper to produce, and the technology to generate the Operators Frequencies became relatively cheap.
To make a long story short, the Blue Box generates the Operators frequencies, known as MF (Multi-Frequency) tones. The legend has it that the first electronic device that telephone company investigators found that duplicated the Operator's MF tones was actually colored blue, hense the name stuck on any such device. But to use a Blue Box, you first had to "sieze" a trunk.
Now telephone company circuits were split up in the earliest days of telephony into two kinds of circuits, Subscriber Lines and Trunk Circuits. Large cities would have several switchboards around town. There was the Central Exchange, the various local branch exchanges ( "Murray Hill", "Congress", etc), and some large industrial companies even had their own Private Branch Exchange, or PBX that they controlled. The lines that connected the exchanges were called Trunk lines, and there was an involved proceedure for an operator to complete a call for a customer.
Once Kansas City undertaker Armond Strowger got wind that his rival in the funeral business had a girl-friend who was a telephone operator, and that she was delivering grief stricken relatives to her boy-friend to arrange funerals for the dearly departed, he got mad enough to invent automatic switching of telephone calls! (This is an overly simplified description, but basically true)
The Strowger Switch, and associated rotary dial, reinvented Telephony, and just in time, too. Telephones were becoming so popular that there weren't enough women in the labor force to become telephone operators! So Bell Labs re- invented trunk switching as well, and in the 1950's started deploying it in large numbers.
Now there's a funny thing about telephone conversations. Just because people aren't talking, doesn't mean that a telephone conversation is over. Two love-struck individuals who have run out of things to say, but are too in love to hang up, just breathe at each other for a while, and AT&T wants to wring every penny out of that communication!
Now the folks at Bell Labs are very studious people, and they make some amazing discoveries. Some of them lead to the US Government issuing almost 2 patents a day addressed to suburban New Jersey, and a few of these discoveries are not only nominated for the Nobel Prize - but they win it as well!
So Bell Labs looks at just what sounds are carried over their circuits, and come to find out that pure tones are very rare. Many voices have harmonics in them that produce very rough "waveforms" when the voice is looked at on an oscilliscope. So after some serious study (which we've just determined they're very good at), they decided that a pure tone of 2600 Hz would be the tone put across a line when a trunk line was available for use.
In the old days, the operators put the plug from their switchboard into a trunk to see if it was in use, but now automatic equipment would recieve tones to tell the same thing. This is where the Cap'n Crunch Whistle made John Draper's name.
John would go to a lonely, secluded pay phone at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. He'd call a Toll-Free 800 number (the Sheraton Hotels at 800-325-3535 was pretty popular back then). Before the party had picked up the phone, John would blow his Cap'n Crunch whistle.
Equipment at the other end heard a pure tone of 2600 Hz, and did the robotic equivilent of thinking, "Oh, the party that was calling has hung-up the phone, because I'm hearing the tone of an available Trunk line. I'm hearing 2600 Hz, so I'll throw away the call I've been placing."
After a couple of seconds, John stops blowing on the whistle, and the "Magic Genie" at the other end wakes up and thinks, "Hey! The other end just stopped sending 2600 Hz! I'd better wake up, and take down the digits my fellow telephone switch is about to send me so I can complete his next call."
John now places the speaker of the Blue Box over the microphone of the telephone set he's using. He punches in the button for "KP", the Key Pulse signal that starts all calls, and then punches in "188 Start" (the Blue Box had the 10 digits, a KP and a Start button). The "Start" button is another "command tone" in the set of Operators Frequencies that directly controls the Long Lines network.
John next hears a dial-tone coming from the "White Plains Sender", a telephone switch in White Plains NY where some of the Trunk Circuits available are through Trans-Atlantic cables. Next, punch in 44, the country code for England, 1 for London, and the 7 digit number for TeleTourist, a tourist information number in London. Once the tourist information recording picks up the phone, a signal is sent back to the billing machine at his local telephone office with the instruction, "The party has picked up the phone - start your billing timer now". The billing computer then knows that the call it knows about (to the hotel reservations system - the last number dialled with ordinary Touch Tones) was the call placed to the 800 number which it knows does not get billed.
Actually, that was the second number I dialled when I first got a Blue box to play with. My first call was to 303-499-7111. A number which is still to this day the number for WWV, the National Standard Time Signal (hmm, I'd better check to see if the Area Code has been changed recently). My third and last call was to area 910-555-1212, and I got what I was calling. I didn't have the equipment with me at the time to do anything with it, but I got the answering tone of a modem. I'd reached Directory Assistance for the TWX Teletype Exchange. This proved to me once, and for all that the TWX Teletype Network actually was interconnected with the voice telephone network - a fact that the telephone company repeatedly denied.
These technological "play toys" called "Blue Boxes" were a quaint curiosity to the media. In October of 1971, Esquire Magazine wrote an article about John and a couple of other Phone Phreaks as they were called. One of those in the article was named Cheshire Cat, which is why your author has always been careful to point out that I am not the Cheshire Cat, but The Cheshire Catalyst.
John Draper (Captain Crunch) has been in and out of jail for his various exploits. At one point, he came back East with some friends from California, rented a house in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, and settled in to do some programming work. John was great at programming. He had the mind-set to understand the machine logic of technology, whether it was a telephone switch, or computer memory (which were becoming more and more the same in the modern era) .
John was throwing a party at the house in the Poconos one weekend, and the gang from the TAP Newsletter were invited. I knew the route out Interstate-80, and knew about the 76 Truckstop in Stroudsberg, which was, after all, the town that John & his friends were living in. I dialled up the TWX teletype machine at the Truck Stop, and sent myself a message from my computer screen. This is the sort of capability you understood yourself, but your buddies didn't really figure it out, because they could see no practical value to it. "So you sent a message to a Truck Stop. So what", they'd say.
As would be typical for "city folks", we were a little late getting picked up for our ride out to the "wilds" of Pennsylvania. Further, I made myself a pain-in-the-butt about going what turned out to be 10 miles out of our way to pick up this lousy Telex message. "It's a TWX message", I shot back, quickly reminding them of the differences between the three row keyboard of the Telex machine, with it's 5- level Baudot Code (International Telegraph Alphabet Number 2, in some circles), and the 4 row keyboard of the TWX machine and it's 7 level ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange - International Telegraph Alphabet Number 5, and bonus points if you figured out that International Telegraph Alphabet Number 1 is The Morse Code).
So here's the scene. We've picked up the TWX message from the truckstop, we're half an hour behind our original late schedule, and we finally figure out the directions from coming the wrong way on Interstate-80 (having passed the landmarks on our way out to the truckstop), and pull into the driveway just in time to see John in handcuffs in the back seat of the patrol car being driven away! Had we gotten there a half hour earlier, we'd have been caught up in the middle of the bust.
It seems that John just couldn't help playing with his "techie toys", and the local telephone company didn't like it one bit. I had planned to "promote" Captain Crunch to Commodore Crunch in the pages of the TAP Newsletter, and announce it at the party. I was glad I'd never made my intentions known, because it would have looked bad to do that in light of John's having been "busted" for being stupid!
I made a special trip out to the county jail in Easton on my own to visit him one time. Being from California, he didn't have too many friends on this side of the continent who were able to come visit him.
A story I like to tell about John is the time I visited the
house he was renting in Oakland on one of my trips to the West Coast
when I had some time to do visiting. He invited me into his
basement workshop, pointed me to a bar stool, and he sat down in the
only chair in the room. This was no problem, and seemed like a very
"hackerish" arraingement. I got comfortable, slumped down on the bar
stool, and rested my elbow on the Apple ][ computer on the work bench
next to me. Then I really noticed the Apple, and jerked my arm
away as if it had been burnt!
"JOHN!", I called out. "How old is this Apple, anyway?". John
smiled, acknowledging that I had truly noticed something that only we
true aficionados would recognize. "Yeah Cheshire, the first Apple ]['s
didn't have the air circulation slots cut into the sides. They
burned up a lot of chips until the redesigned cabinets came out."
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