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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

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  1,377 ratings  ·  182 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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 ·  1,377 ratings  ·  182 reviews

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Start your review of Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell
Feb 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
B Schrodinger
Feb 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Elizabeth K.
May 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 evol
Aug 20, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Jeff Raymond
Apr 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Timothy Hurley
Apr 27, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  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
Rob Hood
Apr 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing
If you like to learn about and understand how technology works, you'll love this book. It is long and sometimes difficult to read, but it is well worth it!
Aug 13, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: e-books, non-fiction
If you've ever been curious about the history of phone phreaking -- or, hey, maybe you just passionately care about how the telephone system used to work -- this is the book for you. I knew it was a bunch of nerdy engineers building blue boxes because back in the day there were technical publications that basically explained everything you needed to know about the phone system in order to exploit it; I didn't know that the mob and the FBI had gotten involved and that a lot of it was very counter ...more
Dec 22, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: math-science
Were you a "phone phreak"? The statutes of limitations long have expired, but the whistles packaged free in boxes of "Captain Crunch" cereal perfectly matched the Bell long-distance signaling codes in the pre SS-7 (signaling system 7) days, meaning up through the early eighties. There also were blue boxes and black boxes, with the same effect, albeit neither free nor easy to make. All of these fooled the Bell system into allowing free long distance charges.

For some reason, I was delighted with t
Mar 01, 2015 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
Feb 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
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
Jan 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
May 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
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.
Nov 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Immensely enjoyable book about phone hacking (phreaking) in the 60s and 70s - and incidentally a great history of the development of the phone system over the whole 20th century. Lots of interesting personalities. So much fun to read, for a computer nerd anyway.
Mike Voss
Oct 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Allow me to introduce Phil Lapsey's non-fictional 2013 narrative Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell with some personal observations relevant to his research:

Back in the 1970s, in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles, you could call a free-of-charge telephone number that read you the current time. What the majority of the users of this service would never realize was that in some circumstances, due to a fluke of the telephone system,
Josh Friedlander
Apr 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: tech
It was interesting to contrast the AT&T of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation with this one. The first showed a brilliant lab with a model of scientific development funded by a government-controlled monopoly, a quite sensible idea inexplicably subject to multiple attacks by the Department of Justice, one of which eventually succeeded. This shows another side: The Phone Company, more like the Evil Empire in Star Wars; a despised corporate monolith which price-gou ...more
Aug 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
A very thorough and detailed history of Phone (ph)reaking. The author did a great job of keeping the technical aspects that needed to be in there while at the same time not over doing it so as to make it unintelligible to those who aren't quite as versed in the subject. The part I liked the most was he neither glamorized or "othered" the participants and told a straight story, that with the fun parallels between current MitM attacks and nascent DDoS through stacking brought a smile to my face as ...more
David Dinaburg
Sep 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
A coworker asked, “Who’s ‘Ma Bell?’” the day before I returned Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell to the library. I told her—somehow eschewing the pat and self-deprecating “...and then I turned into old dust” we of middle age must utter to ward off admission of actual decrepitude—
about how the phone company used to be a governmentally approved near-monopoly. And unless you conflate surviving the relentless march of time with purposeful knowledge
Oct 16, 2016 rated it liked it
Recommended to Taylor by: Chris
Shelves: word-of-mouth
If I had only read the first half of this book, I'd have given it five stars.

When I was asked what I thought of the book after the first few chapters, I accused it of being "too" interesting. I found the well-researched history of the telephone system fascinating, and the foundations this history would provide to the specific context of phone phreaking were duly addressed, to prevent the all-too-common nonfiction glut of "exposition intros."

Well into the middle of the book and deep into the sto
Aug 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Mark Schlatter
Dec 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Well, I found this to be sheer wonderfulness. Lapsley details the history of the phone phreak movement, starting with the early hackers who just wanted to understand the phone system to the later counterculture folks who wanted to rip off a powerful monopoly. At the same time, he covers the development of AT&T and details the steps the corporation took (or sometimes failed to take) to thwart those who tried to game the system.

I don't think it's a perfect book. There is a huge cast of characters,
Executive Summary: An interesting and seemingly well researched book on the history of phone phreaking. As someone whose been interested in computer/technology history, this book was right in my wheelhouse.

Audiobook: Johann North does about all you can hope for with a non-fiction book. He's speaks clearly with good inflections and generally doesn't get in the way of the book he's reading. It's certainly a decent option for reading this book, but far from a "must listen".

Full Review
This book
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't w ...more
Mar 29, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: hacker-shit
[ + ] Hacking the mid-century telecommunications giant of AT&T is a niche but delightful topic that shows the reader the sheer ingenuity it takes to not only circumvent a billion-dollar industry - but to own it.

[ + ] This book shows the ethos and motivation of these phone phreakers; no harm was meant, and all experimenting was done in the name of pushing the limits of modern technology. However, there is also an acknowledgement of the existence and motivations of the authorities that were never
Eugene Miya
Feb 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
May 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 17, 2013 rated it liked it
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 curious be ...more
May 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
WANTED HARVARD MIT Fine Arts no. 13 notebook. (121 pages) & 40 page reply K.K. & C.R. plus 2,800; battery; m.f. El presidente no esta aqui asora, que lastima. B. David Box 11595 St. Louis, MO 63105.
Locke sat back. Someone had put a cryptic ad in the newspaper. He’d responded. They sent him a letter. In mirror writing. In Russian. In 1967. During the cold war.
Spy ring.
It just didn’t get much cooler than this.

Book preview, available on, and on Kindle.

Exploding the Phones opens with
Sep 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
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