T H E    B O X

Before the WEB of interconnected servers we now call THE INTERNET even existed, the state-of-the-art in communication technology was the telephone system (Ma Bell). It not only linked West-coast to East-coast with instantaneous communication, but linked every phone around the globe to each other through cables and satellites in orbit. Like the modern-day internet, it was used everyday by regular people. And just like with today's web, most people had little perception of such a network... let alone how it worked.

This inter-continental telephonic communication system of the 50's, 60's, and 70's was actually one huge machine... and an extremely sophisticated one. This was during a pre-digital world, where tools and concepts we now take for granted did not yet exist -- things like modems, digital packets, optical interfaces, multiplexed broadband cable, routers, servers... even Personal Computers!

While at college in 1970 a friend in my dorm gave me an issue of Esquire magazine to check out. He'd just read an article in it called Secrets of the Little Blue Box. Knowing that electronics was a hobby of mine, he was curious what I thought about it.

I read the long interesting story, and was intrigued. But I found myself somewhat puzzled, even skeptical... to the point of thinking this has to be fiction! It was extremely compelling. And although written as an true investigative type piece, it did seem a bit too bizarre to be true. However, the science and technical aspects in the story seemed free of errors (that I could tell)... the sort of (real science & technology) errors that can "spoil" certain science fiction tales. But it also raised the real possibility... that it was, indeed... all true! So I kept going back & forth in my mind -- was this a great true story... or a great science fictionesque fantasy tale written by a clever writer with a solid technical background and vivid imagination.

It should be explained here that this Esquire story is a journey into the underworld of some young techno-geeks, (well) known today as phone-phreakers (in modern cultural lingo), who by constructing a rather simple electronic device got total and free access into the world's most sophisticated and complex machine: Ma Bell. The story entails how the whole "blue box thing" started and how the FBI battled with this modern-day gang of young "outlaws".

It should also be noted here that many young people like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs were also aware of this technology at the time... no doubt the same way I'd heard about it. (in fact Wozniak talked about it when his 2006 autobiographical book came out. Here's an edited 2-minute snippet of a radio interview of the Woz speaking about just this topic.) Certainly any young teenager with a good scientific background and a healthy curiosity would be smitten by such a wild tale... the same way I was.

The original Esquire story was written from info supplied by "Cap'n Crunch", who tells (online) about his discoveries that led to his phone phreaking-underground world and other strange tales. Like him, I was not really interested in making free calls but just curious to play around, investigate and find out how this huge Medusa-like-Machine worked. It was unlike anything I'd ever imagined, more akin to science fiction. In fact it was closer in concept to The Matrix, something so futuristic it took Hoolywood decades to conjure up that world (a real fantasy... LOL). Likewise, this story seemed more like fantasy too, and provided much of it's appeal.

By shear coincidence, a few months later I met someone on my summer job who had some Xeroxed sheets he'd gotten from a friend. They were seemingly authentic Bell Labs data sheets on their communications/phone system. They mentioned 2600 hz "kill" freqs... trunk access addresses... international routing codes, etc... all things mentioned in the Esquire article. I started to think that "the box" story I'd been so skeptical and incredulous about... might indeed be true!

With some urging by my friend after he read the Esquire story, I decided to do a reality test. It wasn't that hard to design such a circuit myself... all that was needed was 8 oscillators, gain stage, and access them with a switching-system. We borrowed a signal generator & oscilloscope, and tuned the oscillators to the proper frequencies. Pretty crude, but it worked the first time, despite it's tiny size (2-1/2 by 4 inches). Notice the poor job on the "squareness" of the on/off switch hole... I just didn't have a punch tool to do that better. The lettering is from some leftover "letreset" decals I had (for coolness only). The "speaker" on the right is actually a phone earpiece with an epoxied-on rubber "ring" to make a good seal with the phone's mouthpiece, which is jacked into the box. It's held securely onto the phone mouthpiece with a large elastic band. The "box" itself is quite small, hardly fancy, and not bad for a "one-off" initial experiment.

The inside shows masking tape on the case so that none of the wiring accidentally shorted out against the aluminum case. The switches are simple SPST momentary push switches, wired to a diode bank. The oscillators have variable pots to tune each one manually. I actually had a fancy new keypad and parts for a second box... but between summer work and returning to school, I never got back to finishing that "new model". In fact I never used this original box again after that summer.

It DID work though, just as in the Esquire article. And just like in the original story, it was quite a fantastic trip. I still have some reel-to-reel tapes of those initial experiments as we called over the world. It WAS very neat, using this tiny, cheap, homebuilt tool to bounce yourself from satellite to satellite, (intentionally) routing yourself around the globe multiple times, and then hearing the signal's echo-delay as the huge distances involved "compromised" even the speed of light. What I once thought must be a work of fiction, was actually reality.... and even worked better than "advertised".

In fact, it worked so well that I was approached by someone who offered me... shall we say... a seductive "inducement" to make these for some people connected with nefarious and shadowy dealings. How seductive? How about seven figures worth! Part of my reluctance to such a deal was the knowledge that such a tool needed a level of technical understanding, that although basic, might cause "problems" for the average person, resulting in legal "problems" for all involved. FBI agents were major plot characters in the original story, lest anyone forget. I also had too many living relatives to consider putting them in jeopardy if any such business venture... went bad.

It's probably a good thing I was a bit older when the rise of the PC, digital technology, and the Web came along over a decade later. In fact I purposely avoided all things digital until the new millennium, strange as that may seem... I simply had little free time in those years. But the Web does share a lot of similarities with that old intercontinental phone communications system. In fact, the name of a popular publication you can buy at any newsstand today is called "2600 -The Hacker Quarterly". It's been published for the past 20 years. "2600" is a direct reference to the main access frequency used in the old Blue Box... the "Hacker" reference is more in line with modern digital surreptitious access and computer hacking. The machines (Ma Bell & the Web) are cousins in many ways. Unfortunately, it's just as easy to get into and play havoc with today's modern version of the Medusa... if one is of-a-mind-to. Karma, is something one should always consider when the heart or mind... tempts the soul. Hopefully mine is a cautionary tale.


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