Review: Exploding The Phone

Cover of Exploding The Phone
Cover of Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley

This almost feels like a companion volume to The Idea Factory — the other side of the phone company.  Phil Lapsley’s book, Exploding the Phone, is an absolutely fascinating book on the history of phone phreaking, or exploring the phone network (and hacking it). The phone system, back in the days of analog, was made up of switches thrown by tones and was considered the world’s largest machine.  The phone phreaks figured out how this machine worked and started figuring out the tones necessary to do different things.  It wasn’t all about getting free calls, but about exploration.  (Though, the free calls were their own siren song that couldn’t be ignored either.)

Lapsley interviews many of the famous phreakers, folks like John “Cap’n Crunch” Draper, or Ralph Barclay, the inventor of the blue box.  We see from their own stories what it was like to explore this system, and the network of camaraderie that sprang up amongst phreaks that gave way to paranoia, given that what they were doing wasn’t entirely legal.

The stories in the book aren’t candy coated — I’d long heard that Draper wasn’t particularly well-regarded in the phreak community for being a self-promoting, self-mythologizing jerk, and Lapsley doesn’t do much to dissuade readers of that notion — but he doesn’t downplay the amazing things he did, either.  I wish he’d gone into a bit more about Joybubbles (nee Joe Engressia), as I find him an incredibly interesting person, but that’s a minor quibble — and means that there’s still room for a full biography on the man.  (Someone needs to get cracking on that.)

Overall, if you’re interested in science, phones or networks, Exploding the Phone is essential.  Likewise, if you’re interested in early Apple history, this is a must-read, too.  It’s due to phreaking that we have the iPad, after all — that’s where Jobs and Wozniak got their start, building blue boxes to sell door-to-door.  Pretty neat, huh?

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