Kirkus Star


The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell
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A rollicking history of the telephone system and the hackers who exploited its flaws.

Before the mid-20th century, long-distance phone calls were the domain of the now-extinct telephone operator. Beginning in the 1950s, AT&T introduced new equipment that allowed customers to place long-distance calls directly. These new switching machines communicated by sending tones back and forth at a specific pitch: 2,600 Hz, “or seventh octave E for the musically inclined.” In 1955, David Condon happened to stumble upon a Davy Crockett whistle at his local Woolworth’s which made just such a tone. Although the term would not be coined until years later, when Condon trilled his Crockett whistle into the handset, he became the first phone phreak—“someone obsessed with understanding, exploring, and playing with the telephone network.” In his debut, technology consultant Lapsley lays out an incredible clandestine history of these first hackers, who not only tricked the phone system into letting them make calls for free, but would show others how to do the same. They eventually built small devices called “blue boxes” so anyone with one of these boxes could cheat the phone company. Lapsley deftly escorts readers through the development of the modern telephone system (and how it was exploited), covering intricate details of phone technology with prose that is both attentive to detail yet easy to understand for general readers. Perhaps more importantly, the author weaves together a brilliant tapestry of richly detailed stories—the people and events he describes virtually come to life on the page. Taken as a whole, the book becomes nothing short of a love letter to the phone phreaks who “saw joy and opportunity in the otherwise mundane.”

A first-rate chronicle of an unexamined subculture.

Pub Date: March 5th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2061-8
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2013


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