Did you know that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the co-founders of the giant Apple Inc. had started out as hackers who ended up building an entire kingdom out of the lessons they learnt in their hacking days.
One of their hacking works built in the 1970s known as a “Blue Box” device is at display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. It was a device that allowed users to get free phone service illegally. Interesting, isn’t it? Let’s delve further to unfold the story.
How did it all begin?
Before Wozniak and Jobs built Apple in the 1970s, both were “phone phreaks”. Wozniak was an old-school hacker himself, whose hacker name was ‘Berkeley Blue’, while Jobs’ handle was ‘Oaf Tobar’. In fact, in the year 1969, Wozniak was expelled in his first year of college by University of Colorado Boulder for hacking into the institution’s computer system.
Who is a phone phreak?
A phone phreak is someone who breaks into the telephone network illegally, typically to make free long-distance phone calls or to tap phone lines. Phone phreaking got its start in the late 1950s. It was at its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The term first referred to groups who had reverse engineered the system of tones used to route long-distance calls.
The birth of blue box
Wozniak and Jobs had learnt about blue boxes from famed “phreaker” (phone freak/hacker) John “Cap’ n Crunch” Draper. (This nickname was referred to a whistle given away in the 1960s in Cap’ n Crunch breakfast cereal that generated a 2,600 Hz tone when one of the whistle’s two holes was covered, was enough for a person to enter operator mode on AT&T’s phone system.)
To ease the creation of these tones, electronic tone generators or phone phreaking device known as “blue boxes” was created. These boxes were designed in 1972 by Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak.
In older days, telephone operators used to manually connect a call to form a route of the call. Later, they were automated and the automatic exchanges communicated with each other using a series of audible tones as signals to route calls. The blue box was designed to emulate this in-band signalling tones used by the telephone exchanges. Playing these tones through a speaker connected to the telephone handset’s microphone tricked the automatic exchanges into thinking that they were receiving legitimate signalling information.
Once you made a long distance call, you could use the box to enter operator mode, then use it to route your call as you wanted and to wherever you wanted, all for free and extremely difficult to trace, making blue boxes a popular item amongst various criminal elements. This enabled the hacker to decode all the signals by potentially giving him the capability to hack the calls and exchanges and even manipulating phone bills. Also, a related device, the black box, enabled one to receive calls which were free to the caller.
That’s when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak realized the commercial potential of their invention and started selling them illegally, thereby entering the clandestine world of the Phone Phreaker.
Back then, blue boxes had primarily become the domain of “pranksters” and “explorers”, but others used blue boxes solely to make free phone calls. They were also popular with drug dealers and other criminals, because calls were not only free, but were virtually impossible to trace with the technology available at the time.
On one occasion, Wozniak dialed Vatican City and identified himself as Henry Kissinger (imitating Kissinger’s German accent) and asked to speak to the Pope (who was sleeping at the time).
“I called only to explore the phone company as a system, to learn the codes and tricks. I’d talk to the London operator, and convince her I was a New York operator. When I called my parents and my friends, I paid. After six months I quit–I’d done everything that I could.
“I was so pure. Now I realize others were not as pure, they were just trying to make money. But then I thought we were all pure,” Wozniak had said in 1986 during an interview.
Later, when Wozniak and Jobs were nearly caught by the police, the two stopped making the boxes and gave up their criminal ways and moved on to greener pastures that were motivated by new technical challenges. They managed to raise a total of $6,000 from selling blue boxes. According to Jobs, Apple would not have been possible had it not been for the experiments that Wozniak and he did with the Blue Boxes.
However, the era of blue boxing ultimately came to an end in the mid to late 1990s when telecom companies, became aware of the problem, and eventually moved to out-of-band signalling systems with separate data and signalling channels (such as CCIS and SS7). These systems separated the voice and signalling channels, making it impossible to generate signalling signals from an ordinary voice phone line.
Considering their hacking skills and innovations, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs definitely go down as one of those few great hackers of all time in the history of hacking.