Rodney M Bliss

Book Review: Exploding The Phone


I remember breaking the law at my Great Aunt May’s house. We were standing in her basement, huddled around an old phone. This wasn’t the regular phone. This was the scandalous “extension.” In 1970 the phone company owned all of the equipment. You rented your equipment from AT&T. And they had “ways” of finding out if you had installed an extension. I didn’t know what the penalty was. Aunt May didn’t know what the penalty was. But, she knew if you only listened, didn’t talk, you were safe.

Exploding The Phone, by Phil Lapsley is a fascinating journey of exploration into the land of the world’s largest machine. Phil Lapsley takes the reader on a fascinating trip populated with blind teenagers, hippies, blind whistlers, future titans of industry, gamblers, and at the heart of it was the AT&T phone system and something called a blue box.

Exploding The Phone takes us through the cat and mouse game as phone phreaks matched wits with the engineers at the phone company, and law enforcement including the FBI. And to what end? Oh sure, there were a few people like Kenneth Hanna, a bookie who used a blue box to make free phone calls to his clients, but for the most part the people involved in hacking the phone system did it just because they could.

Exploding The Phone details the history not only of how AT&T built the worlds largest machine, but how a bunch of teenagers turned it into their own personal playground. At least, that is until the FBI showed up and spoiled everyone’s fun.

I knew a little of the history of Ma Bell before I picked up Exploding The Phone, but there were plenty of happy surprises for me. For example, “The Steves,” Jobs and Wozniak of Apple Computer fame started out as phone phreaks. Jobs was more interested in selling blue boxes than making them. Wozniak, as usual was the technical brains behind the operation. In an interesting connection that Lapsley didn’t pick upon, Woz’s work on blue boxes had something in common with his work on the Macintosh. Inside each phone hacking blue box he built he included a strip of paper that said,

He’s got the whole world in his hands.

Even Wozniak, who write the introduction for Exploding The Phone couldn’t really explain why he put the phrase there, except that if he was later asked to fix a blue box and it had the paper inside, he’d know it was one of his. . .and he’d fix it for free.

Years later when the Apple Macintosh came out, the Macintosh team included a message inside the box as well.

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The development team signed their names and then Apple baked that into the manufacturing process and the inside of the case. So, just as he did years earlier, Wozniak added a note inside the Mac that said, “I made this.”

This book isn’t for everyone. But, even if your only exposure to phone phreaking was watching Matthew Brodrick make free phone calls in the 1983 movie WarGames, Lapsley has written his story in an engaging way that will take you along for the ride.

What I Liked
Lapsley tells a very interesting story. He includes enough of the details that an old wire monkey like me will find pieces that make me go squee. (It’s a technical term.) But, the technical details take a backseat to the dialogue and the fascinating cast of characters. He doesn’t bury the reader in the technically. Instead, it’s the people who drive the story.

What I didn’t
That cast of characters is part of my one issue with the book. The story lacks cohesion in many spots. When the major players do not have any actual connection to each other, Lapsley has to rely on the technology to transition from chapter to chapter. Especially the first few chapters, while well written in and of themselves, lacked a compelling arc to tie them together.

What it means to you
Exploding The Phone is a hefty tome. It weighs in at 431 pages including the appendix and index. That’s a lot of words to devote to a subject if you have only marginal interest. However, if you grew up taking phones apart and if your first job in college was installing a new telephone system on BYU campus (Pull It Now) Exploding The Phone is a wonderful diversion. I intend to gift my hardbound edition to the head of our telecom team at work. He’s just the kind of old phone phreak who would enjoy it, I think.

3 stars out of 5

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His self titled blog posts every M-F at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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