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Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell
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Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell

4.11 of 5 stars 4.11  ·  rating details  ·  696 ratings  ·  115 reviews
Before smartphones, back even before the Internet and personal computer, a misfit group of technophiles, blind teenagers, hippies, and outlaws figured out how to hack the world’s largest machine: the telephone system. Starting with Alexander Graham Bell’s revolutionary “harmonic telegraph,” by the middle of the twentieth century the phone system had grown into something ex ...more
Hardcover, First Edition, 431 pages
Published February 5th 2013 by Grove Press
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Who remembers Captain Crunch and his infamous blue box used for making free long distance phone calls? If you have ever looked at your iPhone, cable box or latest gee-whiz software and wondered just how it works inside, then you should read this book. Further, if you've ever gone a step beyond and taken that shiny new box apart and burned a chip or used a software tool to modify that machine's behavior, then you MUST read this book.

Exploding the Phone is the result of five years of research by
Brendon Schrodinger
Alongside the age of space exploration in the 60s, 70s and 80s exploration of another type of space was underway. The place of exploration was not a physical space, but a communication network, possibly the largest communication network at that time. These adventurers were random geeks, way before being a geek was considered cool, who had discovered properties of the phones around them and proceeded to experiment, poke, prod and hack.

At the time the US only had one telecommunications company, AT
Jeff Raymond
A while back I read a book about the beginnings of computer hacker culture, Masters of Deception. It was a fun, mostly interview-based history of hackers and such, fairly thin but very appealing. A lot of the beginnings of phone phreak culture were also highlighted in the book, but didn't get a ton of play overall.

Then, a few months ago, Radiolab did a podcast/show that highlighted a person who knew how to access the phone system and make calls simply by whistling the correct tones. He, along wi
Timothy Hurley
Jul 25, 2013 Timothy Hurley rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone with even a mild interest in technology and how hackers do it.
Recommended to Timothy by: Larry Lapsley, author's brother
Good read about phone phreaks and hackers of the telephone company, their history from the beginning of phone lines, and why they do it. Very well researched and very well written. The technology parts are not overdone and the technology that is beyond understanding is not a detraction the way this is written. The human story is what counts and that is fascinating. The epilogue is intriguing. I would have liked knowing if the author's knowledge came exclusively from research or whether he may ha ...more
Elizabeth K.
Sep 11, 2013 Elizabeth K. rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Elizabeth by: Book Beast review
Shelves: 2013-new-reads
I stayed up much, much too late reading this book. I loved it, but I also recognize that it's the kind of book where you probably have to go into it with a foundational interest in the subject matter - in this case, the phone phreaking of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, in which teenagers and young adults made a hobby out of finding and messing around with exploits in the AT&T phone system.

It also helps if you like phone history overall, which I do. The other big aspect of this book is a look at the
The AT&T phone network was built over a number of years and became more automated over the years. Gradually, it connected across the country and other nations and continents. There no hackers so the company didn't plan for them. As the phone company gradually changed to a more automated systems in the early 60s, teens, organized crime and people who enjoyed with technology found ways to bypass paying for calls by making blue boxes and black boxes of cheap materials. The laws originally weren ...more
Mar 07, 2015 Heather marked it as quit
Shelves: pageturners
I'm quitting because I've lost interest. The beginning history of the phone network was fascinating, but, for me, the book bogged down and became repetitive while describing the stories of the individual phreaks.

I think I'm also projecting my dislike of present day computer hackers onto the phreaks. But when does curiosity turn to mischief and mischief to crime? Some of the phreaks definitely made that journey.

Finally, the story was pushing some of my feminist buttons. I think, aside from the
4.5 Stars. Even though I grew up in the era of omnipotent Ma Bell and my step-father worked for Pennsylvania Bell, I had little idea of the technical complexity of the Bell system. I also had no knowledge of the ingenious and uber-curious teens who spent thousands of hours hacking the system to see how it worked and what they could do with it. The time these "phone phreaks" devoted to exploring the Bell network and the effect this had on technological development is astonishing. As you may suspe ...more
Meticulously researched, well-written, and surprisingly engaging. I'm old enough to remember some of the very basic (social engineering) tricks we used to use to make fee calls, but hadn't had any exposure to the technological end of phreaking.

Honestly, my favorite parts of this book were not the stories of the hackers, but the story of the development of the phone system itself. It's rare for me to enjoy reading something about as dry a topic as the evolution of switching devices. As a not-ver
Steven Yenzer
I really enjoyed this book. It's both a historical account of the development of the American telephone system and the story of the phone phreaks who learned its ins and outs. They really were the first hackers -- using trial-and-error to build an understanding of a massive, complex system that went far beyond the engineers who created that system. And in the vein of current attempts to revitalize the term "hacker," phone phreaks really weren't in it for anything other than curiosity and fun. Ve ...more
Brad Wheeler
I love it when I start reading a history book with only a vague idea of the subject matter, and then by the end I not only know vastly more than I did, but I can see where the history I just read about fits in with the history I already knew. That might sound weird, but it's one of the greatest pleasures of reading nonfiction, for me. As you've probably guessed, this was one of those books.

I learned a lot about how the phone system worked in the pre-digital age. I learned how to break it. I lear
Very enjoyable read about the birth of hacker culture. I think it helps if you actually remember something about what phones were like before the break up of Ma Bell. He does a good job of explaining the technical parts in a simple manner and doesn't get bogged down in the technical details.
Michael Babcock
This was a very educational and informative book! Not only does it educate you on the history of the phone, and what different companies/the United States government have gone through in regards to individuals hacking the phone, and making it do what they want! But it leaves a very intricate story as well!I am greatly inspired by this book because it both shows what can be done if you put your mind to it, and what right there that we don't know much about! Yes, phone systems are now digital, but ...more
A page-turning, engrossing non-fiction book about phone phreaking, the practice of figuring out what tones to whistle into phones "back in the day" (1950's through 1970's were the real heyday) to get free calls (among other hacks - more done for the thrill of the chase than the actual achievement of free phone calls).

Those phone phreaks certainly seemed to be unusual types, and also the precursors of computer hackers. I really liked how he ended the book, wondering whether or not this phenomeno
I really enjoyed this book. Having just started a new job in Kendall Square, it was really fun to be reading a book about innovation and in many ways that is what this book was about.

The title and subtitle of the book made it seem like it would be a hacker-like story, kind of like The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage. And there definitely were parts that were exciting and had the characteristics of a thriller like that. But the book was really two stories - one
I hardly ever write reviews on the books I read, but this one was an exception. Perhaps one of the most fun, interesting, and downright dirty stories of the misfit youth who used to phreak the phone system, including some who would go on to do things that would change the world. Before it was 'cool' to be a punk or a rebel, these kids were exploiting millions of dollars out of the biggest corporation in human history from cigarette-smoked basements. Well researched, and well written. I highly re ...more
Really fun to read. I was sort of vaguely aware that phone phreaking was a thing, but I was scant on the details. There's a palpable sense of excitement as you watch this ragtag band of misfits discover how to work through the giant electromechanical network that was Ma Bell. I especially liked the bit near the end where the author tosses out questions which are extremely relevant today: how much culpability do we place on people for merely being curious? And why should companies and governments ...more
A well-researched and engaging look at the phone phreaks in the 1950's/60's/70's who explored AT&T's network. Lapsley combed through government documents obtained through FIOA requests and conducted hundreds of interviews to piece together the story of a curious group of misfits who found security holes that enabled everything from party phone lines for phreaks around the country to calls to the White House. For me, the most interesting part of the book was the question: when does the curiou ...more
Four 1/2 stars. For as long as mankind has had any sort of technology, there have been those who sought to figure out how it works and what else can be done with it. This well-researched book is about the telephone, and specifically, the phone-phreak culture that evolved from it. This book gives the reader a grounding in the early design of the Bell System, and then explains how young, bright, and curious young men experimented with whistles, pulses and tones to explore the phone system and late ...more
Great retrospective and expose on the early days of 'phone phreaking.' Includes a general overview of the development of the phone system - as well as many of the tips/techniques used throughout the 50s/60s/70s to 'explore' the phone system.

Lapsley does a good job linking the individual personalities of various 'phreaks' and key phone company employees - weaving a tale of the covering the activities.

Some of the stories are quite interesting - how blind teenagers accidentally discovered the 2600H
Eugene Miya
This is not for humanist-historians types. This is a story about people and a developing technology. One can see that the engineers of the phone company had a hard enough time trying to get the early phone system to work much like the early Internet was just trying to work, deal with security later.

Parts of the book are personal to me: I know Phil; I know Draper, and I know the times and parts of LA and the SF Bay area where where a lot of this took place (I'm surprised that Kevin Mitnick's name
This is a book about people hacking into the phone system from the mid 1950s until the 1980s, largely before hacking was even a word, to freely explore the telephone network. Many of them were simply telephone network enthusiasts - hence the term "phone phreaks". I found the story compelling, in part because it is fun to read about smart people outwitting the government and the most powerful corporation in the world, and in part because it gave me some new perspective on recent events (NSA data- ...more
Very fun read that combined compelling stories with cultural history and some well-placed nostalgia. Lapsley does a great job of explaining the inner workings of the phone company (back in the day where it was indeed THE phone company) in a way that was not only compelling but also very understandable. The latter is hugely important, as when he starts describing how phone phreaks started discovering and exploiting the vulnerabilities in Ma Bell's technology, it's easy to grasp what they're doing ...more
Christopher Fox
Reads like a TV crime drama. The fact that most of the events took place starting some 50+ years ago doesn't diminish the fun of reading this fast-paced, breezy, colloquial, well-explained and fascinating look into the early days of the telephone world. In addition to its cast of strange, brilliant characters (young at first), this engrossing book opens the doors of the technical marvel that is the foundation of our beloved, all-pervasive phone system (a la AT&T).
Rati Bars
Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley, is a great book. I enjoyed his style, with a story of phone phreaking along with a bit of history. At the same time, you get an idea of a history of the telephone, how it evolved over time, how you could work around it.

It gives you a perspective of smart teenagers with time in their hands. It is this exploring, that leads to novel ideas and inventions. I agree with the author when he says that tolerance for such teenagers should increase.

I also felt it was
Tim Pozar
Fun read. Just consumed it like a hungry man getting his first meal.

Great detail on the history with detailed sidebars on how things worked. Would have loved to see more of that but it wouldn't have been as much of a history book then. :-)

Much like some other reviewers here, I do known some of the folks in this book as well as the author. This means I am likely biased in rating it well but I am also going to hold the book up and see how it well it describes what I know about the scene. I have to
A very exciting read, with lots of interesting stories mapping the world of phreaking. Flows very nicely and Lapsley really gives you the feeling of the community and its actions and motives - and a view into the society of past decades.

What's even nicer is that he doesn't shy away from giving technical details and actually explaining how their tricks worked. Fascinating!
Blaine Morrow
Phone phreaks were the original hackers, and this book chronicles the misadventures of many of them, including (though only peripherally) Woz and Jobs, the Apple co-founders. There's good detail about how these kids got started and became hooked on breaking the phones, but I found most of this only mildly interesting. No real heroes and a lot of people I'd prefer not to know.
Bojana Duke
Interesting in parts, but getting a little long-winded in others, this seems like the type of read that would be proportionally more interesting with your interest in nerding out on phone networks. The author focuses on the various players in the phone phreaking movement of the 60's and 70's while also introducing the implementation of the phone network and its advancements over time. It tried to draw a parallel between phone phreaking and today's computer hacking, making the case that the phone ...more
Sep 22, 2013 Toni rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: owned
I had missed hearing about this book being released, then saw it one day while in the bookstore, and I knew I had to pick it up. I'm a big fan of computer history in general, but the phone network and historical phreaking are especially interesting. My teenage years were a time of BBSes, exploring Ma Bell, and having endless conversations with friends about the two. Though it's nothing I condone today, it was a real treat reading some of the beginnings of the phone company and its exploits, espe ...more
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Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell

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