Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

August 21, 2007

Farewell, Joe Engressia, the Original Phone Phreak

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 8:39 am

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.

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4 Comments »

  1. Hey, Ron. I’m the “phone phreak historian” who tried to contact you. I’m working on a book on the history of phone phreaking from 1960-1980. I’d love to chat with you about the writing of the Esquire article… and I’d love to hear from any old phone phreaks who happen to read your blog and would like to chat. Thanks much!

    Phil Lapsley
    history-of-phone-phreaking@lapsley.org

    Comment by Phil Lapsley — August 21, 2007 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

  2. A friend just forwarded a link to the NY Times article on Joe’s passing. I knew many of the original phone phreaks and recall with a bit of sadness those days when “hacking” did not imply the sort of malicious vandalism that the term has long since implied. In my own case, playing with phones was in the mold of Feynman’s “pleasure of finding things out”. Any romantic notions about counter culture and so on played no role for me personally.

    I still have an original copy of the famous Esquire magazine in a Pendaflex folder 🙂

    – Jim (alias Dennis O’Bell)

    Comment by Jim Roth — August 21, 2007 @ 5:15 pm | Reply

  3. I spoke with Joybubbles once in college back in the 80’s. Some friends and I were crank calling him because of his silly name printed in the phone book. Once we spoke with him and learned he was blind, we were more reverent. But I knew nothing at the time of his phone phreaking. I think he enjoyed the conversation and company. I wish I could go back in time and talk with him about his experiences. I was floored when I heard about Joybubbles’ past on NPR this week. And quite bummed that I’d never heard of phone phreaking while growing up in the 70’s.

    Comment by Andy — August 22, 2007 @ 10:42 am | Reply

  4. I can talk for hours about my serendipitous discovery in 1971 of “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” Soon after Ron’s story was published I realized it was to become a roadmap for the digitization of all things electronic. I thank Mr. Rosenbaum for his insightful presentation of Joybubbles and all like pioneers. It’s easy to forget how open-ended the world was in 1971, the digital future was a dream. But I expect history to note that Ron’s curiosity and respect for the phreaks, served as a catalyst for all those like myself looking for a place to plug-in. Thank you Joe & Ron.

    Comment by Scott — August 23, 2007 @ 6:05 pm | Reply


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