An Early Hacker Used a Cereal Box Whistle to Take Over Phone Lines

Photo credit: Jeff Dilbert
Photo credit: Jeff Dilbert

From Popular Mechanics

Starting in the 1960s, Cap’n Crunch started packing colorful whistle toys inside its cereal boxes. The Cap’n Crunch Bo’sun whistles were designed to mimic boatswain whistles used by sailing officials to signal commands or mealtimes, and it became an unlikely tool of a group of hackers long before they were known as hackers.

John Draper was a former U.S. Air Force electronics technician, a part of an underground culture of phone “phreaks.” They were early hackers who played certain tones through their phones to bypass telephone systems and place free long-distance phone calls.

The cereal box whistle, it turned out, played at 2600 Hzs—the perfect tone to commandeer a phone line, allowing caller to enter an operator mode. The toy whistles became iconic, and Draper nicknamed himself “Captain Crunch.”

Later, Draper built devices called “blue boxes” to replicate the whistle tone, and other useful ones. The blue boxes would have a lasting impact: “I don’t think there would ever have been an Apple Computer had there not been blue-boxing,” Steve Jobs once said in an interview.

As a college student, Jobs and his friend Steve Wozniak had tracked down Draper to learn all about phone phreaks and early hacking. In fact, the friends’ first business venture together was marketing blue boxes to aspiring phreakers. Both claim that this early venture was essential to the success of Apple, which they formed in 1976.

Draper, meanwhile, eventually served time in jail for toll fraud (though he kept programming behind bars), and continued to create major technological innovations, including the first working word processor in the 70’s, and the first effective firewall in the 90’s, despite questionable habits outside of his inventions: in 2017, a report revealed Draper’s sexual harassment teenage fans at technology conventions.

(via Atlas Obscura)

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