Sometimes the best stories are the simplest. Take one of Exploding The Phone‘s gems – the story of Joe Engressia, known as the Whistler. Joe was a blind boy fascinated by the voices that came over the phone. He played on the phone a lot – enough that he eventually learned to mimic the musical tones that indicated a dial tone or a dialed number. He did it by whistling. Simple as can be. And with his whistle, Joe was able to start exerting control over the machines that controlled the phones.
Joe wasn’t alone in his fascination, nor in his discovery. Exploding the Phone purports to document the story of the “phone phreaks”, a group of technologically-minded tinkerers who managed to learn the phone system and then learn how to do tricks with it. Some of these tricks were obvious – like making free long-distance calls. Others were much less so. For the best of the tricks, check out this book now.
What Phil Lapsley manages in his book, though, goes beyond describing the niche scene of the phreaks. He sets the table by describing the history of Bell Telephone (Ma Bell) and their long-standing monopoly on the telephone industry. He reveals just how their sanctioned ownership of the market led to some questionable decision-making (mind-bogglingly bad from the secretive standpoint of today’s marketplace). And he tells a time-honored tale of how business, government, and law are so often forced to react to new technology – and how those reactions are so often poorly conceived.
Ultimately, Exploding The Phone was, for me, as much a page-turner as any good novel. The phreaks whose stories make up the bulk of the book are characters worthy of any author, and their collective curiosity and wonder are contagious. I highly recommend this book, with confidence that while you may not feel entirely sympathetic with the pranks and games of the phreaks, you will nevertheless be amazed at the discoveries they made.