WIRED: Before smartphones and iPads, before the internet or the personal computer, a misfit group of technophiles, blind teenagers, hippies, and outlaws figured out how to hack the world’s largest machine: the telephone system. The following is an excerpt from the new book Exploding the Phone written by Phil Lapsley and published by Grove/Atlantic, which tells the story of the “phone phreaks.”
There it was again.
Jake Locke set down his cup and looked more closely at the classified ad. It was early afternoon on a clear spring day in Cambridge in 1967. Locke, an undergrad at Harvard University, had just gotten out of bed. A transplant from southern California, he didn’t quite fit in with Harvard’s button-down culture — another student had told him he looked like a “nerdy California surfer,” what with his black-framed eyeglasses, blond hair, blue eyes, and tall, slim build. Now in the midst of his sophomore slump, Locke found himself spending a lot of time sleeping late, cutting classes, and reading the newspaper to find interesting things to do. Pretty much anything seemed better than going to classes, in fact. (“Jake Locke” is a pseudonym).
It was a slow news day. The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, didn’t have much in the way of interesting articles, so Locke once again found himself reading the classified ads over breakfast. He had become something of a connoisseur of these little bits of poetry — people selling cars, looking for roommates, even the occasional kooky personal ad probably intended as a joke between lovers—all expressed in a dozen or so words.
But this ad was different. It had been running for a while and it had started to bug him.
WANTED HARVARD MIT Fine Arts no. 13 notebook. (121 pages) & 40 page reply K.K. & C.R. plus 2,800; battery; m.f. El presidente no esta aqui asora, que lastima. B. David Box 11595 St. Louis, MO 63105.
Locke had seen similar classified ads from students who had lost their notes for one class or another and were panicking as exams rolled around. They often were placed in the Crimson in the hopes that some kind soul had found their notes and would return them. Fine Arts 13 was the introductory art appreciation class at Harvard, so that fit.
But nothing else about the ad made any sense. Fine Arts 13 wasn’t offered at MIT. And what was all the gibberish afterward? 2,800? Battery? M.f., K.K., C.R.? What was with the Spanish? And why was somebody in St. Louis, Missouri, running an ad in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looking for a notebook for a class at Harvard? Locke had watched the ad run every day for the past few weeks. Whoever they were, and whatever it was, they clearly wanted this notebook. Why were they so persistent?
One way to find out.
Locke looked around for a piece of paper and a pen. He wrote: “Dear B. David: I have your notebook. Let’s talk. Sincerely, Jake.”
He dropped the letter in the mail on his way into Harvard Square to find something interesting to do.
Bob Gudgel, Jay Dee Pritchard, and John “Captain Crunch” Draper with a bluebox, used for subverting the phone system to make free calls, during a trip in Duvall, Washington, 1971. Photo courtesy Bob Gudgel
An envelope with a St. Louis, Missouri, postmark showed up in Locke’s mailbox a week later. Locke opened the envelope and read the single sheet of paper. Or rather, he tried to read it. It wasn’t in English. It seemed to be written in some sort of alien hieroglyphics. It was brief, only a paragraph or so long. The characters looked familiar somehow but not enough that he could decipher them.
Locke showed the letter to everyone he saw that day but nobody could read it. Later that evening, as Locke sat at the kitchen table in his dorm room and stared at the letter, trying to puzzle it out, one of his roommates came home. Shocked that Locke might actually be doing something that looked like homework, his roommate asked what he was working on. Locke passed the letter across the table and told him about it.
His roommate took one look and said, “It looks like Russian.”
Locke said, “That’s what I thought. But the characters don’t seem right.”
“Yeah. They’re not. In fact?…” His roommate’s voice trailed off for a moment. “In fact, they’re mirror writing.”
“You know, mirror writing. The letters are written backwards. See?”
Locke looked. Sure enough: backwards.
Locke and his roommate went to the mirror and transcribed the reversed lettering. It was Cyrillic — Russian letters. Fortunately, Locke’s roommate was taking a Russian class. They sat back down at the table and translated the letter.
“Dear Jake,” the letter read. “Thank you very much for your reply. However, I seriously doubt that you have what I need. I would strongly advise you to keep to yourself and not interfere. This is serious business and you could get into trouble.” Signed, B. David.
Locke sat back. Someone had put a cryptic ad in the newspaper. He’d responded. They sent him a letter. In mirror writing. In Russian. In 1967. During the cold war.
It just didn’t get much cooler than this, Locke figured. Intriguing. Terrifying, even. And far, far better than going to class. MORE