phreaked, phreak·ing, phreaks
To manipulate a telephone system illicitly to allow one to make calls without paying for them.
Alteration of freak1 (influenced by phone)
You can’t always trust the dictionary.
1) “Phreak” is a noun, as well as a verb – i.e. it was the “phreaks” who “phreaked” the phone system, mainly in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s when the network was a lot easier to manipulate.
2) Phreaking wasn’t always manipulative, nor illicit. The first phreaks were geeks, happy to sit and thrill at the skeletal rattles and owly drones that ushered phone calls through the network. The best phreaks could tell you the purpose of each noise, using words like “supervision,” “panel pulsing” and “m-f-ing” (that is, “multi-frequencing,” not the other thing).
3) And, yes, they made lots and lots of free (read: illegal) long distance calls. But, in my mind, they’re to be forgiven – because how they did it was really, really cool.
The story of phreaking is a love story about machines. It starts in 1959 when an 8-year-old boy in Virginia taught himself to whistle the frequencies that Ma Bell used to send calls back and forth. (He had perfect pitch, he was a genius and, yes, we’re working on a story about him at Radiolab.) He was the first and maybe only whistler, but he wasn’t alone. All over the country, telephonophiles were slowly figuring out how the phone system worked. They pored over manuals with names like Signaling Systems for Control of Telephone Switching. They built little machines called “blue boxes” (or MF’ers) that played the same tones The Whistler could whistle. Hold the “blue box” up to the mouthpiece on your phone, play the right sequence of notes and, voila, you’re calling a payphone in England. Why would you want to call a payphone in England? Because it’s in England. Maybe a stranger with a British accent will answer and talk to you for a few minutes. And even if no one picks up, you can listen to the exotic “blooop blooop” of a British telephone ringing. Phreaks had favorite rings. They had favorite “The number you have reached is not in service” recordings. Their Barbara Streisand was Jane Barbe, the woman who told you what time it would be at the sound of the tone. They knew her name.
The phreaks found out about each other because the phone company did. In short, Ma Bell traced an illegally placed call back to the University of South Florida, where The Whistler was a student. A kid who can whistle free calls is a news story. And the national press corps wasted no time writing about him. Soon his fellow phreaks started calling him, and calling each other. Soon, phreaks began dialing internal test lines and chatting with each other, one-on-one or in groups. They had conference calls before there were conference calls. They climbed into the phone system and hung out there together like kids in a hollowed out juniper bush. It was their home. And if you’re that obsessed with something like the phone system, chances are you don’t really feel at home anywhere else.
Of course, some phreaks were only in it for the free calls. Some weren’t romantic at all. But they were missing out. The old phone system was gigantically bizarre. The sounds it made depended on where you called from and to. When it broke down, it might play you a disco-ish composition of a busy signal, two clicks and something akin to third-grade-music-class rhythm sticks. Or it might play a continuous ring with no pause in between – as though, while placing a call, you became trapped between one moment and the next. As you may have guessed, these sounds, and the phreaks’ deconstruction of them, have won me over a little too. This was an accidental city of sound. And it’s gone. The phone system has evolved, become more efficient (pause for laughter). A blue box is useless now except as a neato antique. The Whistler is dead. Some youngsters will tell you that phreaking lives on, that they still hack the network like their fore-phreakers did. But it isn’t the same. The machines of now seem cold somehow – overly on task. Machines develop a soul in obsolescence. When they’re gone, they ring truer as friends. It happens with everything, over and over.
http://www.historyofphonephreaking.org/ -- Phil Lapsley’s excellent compendium of phreaking knowledge. He’s also working on a book about phreaks.
http://www.wideweb.com/phonetrips/ -- An invaluable audio museum of vintage phone sounds. It’s pretty daunting. If you’re not sure where to start, scroll down to the 6-part homemade documentary “How Evan Doorbell Became a Phone Phreak.” It’s eminently digestible. (Not to mention phreaking great!)
Sean Cole is a producer for Radiolab, and a super great guy for writing this article for us.