Wednesday, August 22, 2007

RIP Joybubbles - An Apple Computer Inspiration

In 1971, four years before Apple Computer was started, co-founder Steve Wozniak, read an article in Esquire Magazine entitled "Secrets of the Little Blue Box" written by Ron Rosenblum. The article described how a 2600 Hz tone generated by a "blue box", or other means, could be used to make free long distance calls.

To get a better understanding, let's take a brief look at telephone network technology in the 1970's. All telephone network signallng was "in-band". This meant everything - call
establishment, the exchange of user information, call routing and (most importantly) billing, was done on the same band as voice. This is completely different from today where all signaling (except on the local loop - the "last mile" pair of wires coming in to your home) is done out-of-band using a technology called Signaling System 7 (SS7).

The Esquire article Wozniak read back in 1971 provides a good description of hacking or "phone phreaking" this early phone system. Here's a rather long quotation with Rosenblum asking
Al Gilbertson (whose real name has been changed), the creator of the blue box about how the technology works:

"...When you dial a long-distance number the first thing that happens is that you are hooked into a tandem. A register comes up to the side of the tandem facing away from you and presents that side with the number you dialed. This sending side of the tandem stops whistling 2600 into its trunk line. When a tandem stops the 2600 tone it has been sending through a trunk, the trunk is said to be "seized," and is now ready to carry the number you have dialed -- converted into multi-frequency beep tones -- to a tandem in the area code and central office you want.

Now when a blue-box operator wants to make a call from New Orleans to New York he starts by dialing the 800 number of a company which might happen to have its headquarters in Los Angeles. The sending side of the New Orleans tandem stops sending 2600 out over the trunk to the central office in Los Angeles, thereby seizing the trunk. Your New Orleans tandem begins sending beep tones to a tandem it has discovered idly whistling 2600 cycles in Los Angeles. The receiving end of that L.A. tandem is seized, stops whistling 2600, listens to the beep tones which tell it which L.A. phone to ring, and starts ringing the 800 number. Meanwhile a mark made in the New Orleans office accounting tape notes that a call from your New Orleans phone to the 800 number in L.A. has been initiated and gives the call a code number. Everything is routine so far. But then the phone phreak presses his blue box to the mouthpiece and pushes the over the line again and assumes that New Orleans has hung up because the trunk is whistling as if idle. The L.A. tandem immediately ceases ringing the L.A. 800 number. But as soon as the phreak takes his finger off the 2600 button, the L.A. tandem assumes the trunk is once again being used because the 2600 is gone, so it listens for a new series of digit tones - to find out where it must send the call.

Thus the blue-box operator in New Orleans now is in touch with a tandem in L.A. which is waiting like an obedient genie to be told what to do next. The blue-box owner then beeps out the ten digits of the New York number which tell the L.A. tandem to relay a call to New York City. Which it promptly does. As soon as your party picks up the phone in New York, the side of the New Orleans tandem facing you stops sending 2600 cycles to you and stars carrying his voice to you by way of the L.A. tandem. A notation is made on the accounting tape that the connection has been made on the 800 call which had been initiated and noted earlier. When you stop talking to New York a notation is made that the 800 call has ended.

At three the next morning, when the phone company's accounting computer starts reading back over the master accounting tape for the past day, it records that a call of a certain length of time was made from your New Orleans home to an L.A. 800 number and, of course, the accounting computer has been trained to ignore those toll-free 800 calls when compiling your monthly bill.

Free long distance calls - certainly got Steve Wozniak excited. According to a posting on Steve Wozniak's website - he called his buddy Steve Jobs and the next day went over to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and poured through the technical library there looking for an article that listed all in-band signalling frequencies. They then went over to Job's house and built a couple of multivibrator oscillators - tone generators! The first devices they built were unstable and did not generate accurate frequencies. Wozniak ended up finding a guy by the name of Mike Joseph in his Berkley dorm who had "perfect pitch" and could identify musical notes. According to Wozniak:

"If it didn't work, he'd tell me what notes he heard. If one of them was a C-sharp and was supposed to be an A, I could look up the C-sharp frequency and find out where my frequency divider was off, and replace a diode that was bad".

The Wozniak/Jobs blue boxes were perfected and the business partnership between Jobs and Wozniak was born with Jobs working with Wozniak to sell the blue-boxes. They had some success and decided to begin working on a personal computer. Jobs sold his Volkswagen, Wozniak sold his HP scientific calculator, together raising $1,300 to fund their startup - the rest is history.

What does Joybubbles (in 1971 known as Joe Engessia) have to do with all of this you might ask? In the 1960's Joe was a blind (from birth) student at the University of Southern Florida who could whistle a perfect 2600 Hz pitch and, many claim, was the inspiration behind the development of the blue boxes. He was mentioned, along with other phone phreaks including a guy who went by the name of Captain Crunch, in the Esquire article. Rosenblum referred to Joe specifically as "the catalyst uniting disparate phreaks". Before the boxes were developed Joe demonstrated the concept worked. An inspiration for Wozniak and Jobs - for sure.

Here's an early video of Joybubbles phone phreaking:

In the video he routes a call in a 1000 mile loop through the telephone network from the phone in front of him to the phone to his left - these two phones are on separate lines. He does this just by whistling - amazing huh?

Not everything has a happy ending though. Perhaps the Esquire article put a target on Joe since his real name was used. This video piece also did not help. Eventually he was arrested, charged with malicious mischief and given a suspended sentence. He stopped phone phreaking. It gets worse..... as a child Joe had been sexually abused by a teacher and, in 1982 reverted back to his childhood, functioning in his own mind as a 5 year old. In 1991 he changed his name to Joybubbles.

Joybubbles passed away on August 8, 2007 in Minneapolis. The cause of death has not been determined. He lived most of his life on social security disability with part time work as a scent tester. According to his obituary in the New York Times, university agriculture researchers used his superb sense of smell to investigate how to control the odor of hog excrement. Also from his obituary - his second life as a youngster included becoming a minister in his own Church of Eternal Childhood and collecting tapes of every “Mr. Rogers” episode. When asked why Mr. Rogers mattered, he said: “When you’re playing and you’re just you, powerful things happen.”

A brilliant man, Joybubbles had an IQ of 172. He was 58 years old and is survived by his mother and sister.

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