Joybubbles and the Phone Phreaks

In the 1960s and 70s a whole subculture of teenagers - many of them blind - became fascinated by the United States phone system. They spent their time finding ingenious ways to hack into it and make the network do things that not even the phone company could have imagined. They were known as the phone phreaks. This is the story of the genius at the centre of that subculture.

Escaping down the phone lines

Joe Engressia was obsessed with the US phone system. As a child, he would spend hours listening to the speaking clock. Joe was born blind, in 1949. His sister was also blind and they grew up in a troubled home where his father was violent towards his mother. As Joe said, there were scary sounds at night but when he picked up the telephone, the soft hum of the dial tone was always there.

To someone limited by the physical world, the phone allowed him to explore.

As a teenager he discovered a remarkable gift – his perfect pitch meant he could whistle at the precise pitch that signalled the end of a call to the phone system. As a result, the call would disconnect, except Joe’s call would still be hooked into the phone system. He could therefore explore, and make calls for free. To someone limited by the physical world, the phone allowed him to explore. He would make calls to places all over the globe. Once he got to college, he became very popular on campus as the kid who could whistle free long distance calls.

A phreak amongst friends

What he didn’t know was that other teenagers were doing this – many of them blind. The trend was named ‘Phone Phreaking’. Like any exciting undercover cult, they all assumed names – Captain Crunch, Jack the Rip-off, etc. They would call recently divorced couples simultaneously and then listen to the couple accuse each other of ringing, or make a Mormon church ring a liquor store. Phone Phreaks also created various gadgets, one of which was ‘the black box’, the size of a cigarette pack with a suction cup attached to the mouthpiece with oscillators and an amplifier that allowed the Phreaks to call an 0800 number, put the speaker up to the phone and re-route their call to anywhere in the world. One of Joe’s tricks was to get two telephones, ring himself, route it right round the globe and then listen to himself answer it.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple discovered the Phone Phreaks and became fascinated; in fact Jobs said if there was no black box, there would have been no Apple.

Joe’s ambition had always been to work with the phone company. He began working as a network troubleshooter for the Bell telephone company. His job was to identify faults and fix them, using his Phone Phreak skills: as he put it, “we know how to listen, know where the trouble is.”

Special agents from the phone company began prosecuting those who did untoward things on the network.

In November 1971, Esquire magazine pulled the plug on the whole undercover world by publishing a feature about Phone Phreaking. Special agents from the phone company began prosecuting those who did untoward things on the network. ‘Captain Crunch’ did three years in prison after the FBI monitored his phone line.

Dealing with a troubled childhood

In 1980, Joe moved to Minneapolis because he liked the numbers in the area code (612). He ran a forerunner of a podcast, a phone line called ‘Stories and Stuff’. It had a confessional element and Joe began talking about his memories of his childhood abuse at the Catholic School for the Blind in New Jersey where he spent his early years. “The thing I remember most was the sound of that door closing,” he said, describing the sexual abuse perpetrated on him by one of the nuns. He felt he’d been deprived of a proper childhood. As a result, he decided to rename himself Joybubbles and declared himself to be the age of five forever to enable him to play, and recapture what he had missed out on.

Joybubbles died in 2007, at the age of 58. The New York Times ran an obituary, and friends and family put together a telephonic memorial; a four hour conference call.

Phone Phreaks were the first playful hackers; they taught us to try, to explore, to get inside technology. Joybubbles, the Phone Phreak, explored the huge machine of the telephone system in which the whole world is blind.

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