I got a call from NPR’s “All Things Considered” yesterday asking me to talk about the the recent death of Joe Engressia aka “Joybubbles”, the legendary original blind electronics genius who invented “phone phreaking”, the prototypical techo-geek web of rebellion that mutated into computer hacking via the equally legendary “Captain Crunch”.
I’d written about Joe and Crunch for an Esquire article back in the 70’s, an article that had, and still has, on going reverberations. Two guys named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak read my article “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” (which is reprinted in %%AMAZON=0060934468 The Secret Parts of Fortune%%) when they were in college and started experimenting trying to make the blue boxes, tiny cell-phone sized, proto-computers which– based on Joe and Crunch’s “research”–allowed one to make free phone calls all over the world.
I don’t think they ever got one to work, Jobs and Wozniak, but as both have written, it was the beginning of the partnership that became Apple Computer.
They also became patrons, after a fashion, of Joe and Crunch, and the spirit of techno geek rebellion they represented can still be found in hacker culture.
On NPR I recalled visiting Joe’s lair in Memphis, filled to the ceiling with disembowelled phones which, despite his blindness he could do wizardly wonders with.
He was a great American character, a Thomas Edison/Gyro Gearloose folkloric figure and someone who, despite his hardships was a truly wonderful personality. He and the phone phreak/hacker phenomenon spoke to the love/hate relationship America has with technology: we love what tech does for us, but we love the techno outlaws who know how to subvert it and show us humans are still the boss.
About 15 years ago Joe changed his name to “Joybubbles” and dedicated his life to the sensibility of five year olds. I wondered about that, but I realized it’s about play and how hackerdom preserves the spirit of play in an increasingly antiseptic, joyless, cyberworld.
Joe deserves credit for creating, with his phone phreaking, the first electronnic web; the world will miss a lovely spirit, but it’s a spirit that lives on in the World Wide Web.
p.s. To the phone phreak historian who tried to get in touch with me about Joe. I’m sory I lost your email address. Please contact me thru the comments on this blog.