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Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell Hardcover – 21 Mar 2013

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press / Atlantic Monthly Press (21 Mar 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080212061X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802120618
  • Product Dimensions: 3.2 x 15.9 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 710,591 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


An Amazon, Seattle Times, and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year "Phil Lapsley's Exploding the Phone is an authoritative, jaunty and enjoyable account of their sometimes comical, sometimes impressive and sometimes disquieting misdeeds... The author's love of his subject pervades Exploding the Phone and persuaded this reader, at least, that the phone phreaks are worthy of thoughtful attention." --Wall Street Journal "Brilliantly researched." --Atlantic "A fantastically fun romp through the world of early phone hackers, who sought free long distance, and in the end helped launch the computer era." --Seattle Times "A rollicking history of the telephone system and the hackers who exploited its flaws. [Lapsley] weaves together a brilliant tapestry of richly detailed stories... A first-rate chronicle of an unexamined subculture." --Kirkus Reviews (starred review) "A fascinating book steeped in the rich history of phreakers and hackers." --Xeni Jardin, BoingBoing.net "As a bit of tech history--with themes that resonate today--it can't be beat. --Gizmodo.com "Long before we ever came onto the scene there was ... a ragtag group of folks who took the global phone network as the target of their hacking. Exploding the Phone is among the most comprehensive and engaging histories of that community ever published." --Electronic Frontier Foundation, "EFF's Reading List: Books of 2013" "Exploding the Phone is an extraordinary book... To have such a significant, yet underground story captured in such brilliant detail is rare, especially without turning it into a one-sided hero's tale. Exploding the Phone is nearly perfect. I have three print copies, all paid for and autographed. You can't have too many miracles lying around the house." --Jason Scott "Eminently interesting and completely original." --Daily Beast "A rocking great read about the unknown teenagers and hobbyists who defied AT&T when it was foolish to do so. In Lapsley's magnificent research he has uncovered what amounts to a secret pre-history of the computer and internet revolutions." --Tim Wu, author of The Master Switch "With terrific reporting and story-telling. Phil Lapsley has put voluptuous flesh and bones on the legendary tales of the phone phreaks." --Steven Levy, author of Hackers and In the Plex "The definitive account of the first generation of network hackers... At turns a technological love story, a counter cultural history and a generation-spanning epic, [Exploding the Phone] is obsessively researched and told with wit and clarity." --Kevin Poulsen, news editor of Wired.com and author of Kingpin "At once enjoyable and educational." --CNET "With verve and technical accuracy, Phil Lapsley captures the excitement of the days when phone hackers explored Ma Bell's cabled paradise of dial phones and electromechanical switches... Here's the intriguing story of those first electronic adventurers--tinkerers who'd bypass a pay phone with a couple transistors or reach around the world by whistling." --Cliff Stoll, author of The Cuckoo's Egg "A fascinating story about a period of time that I lived through but didn't know much about. I can't imagine how much work Lapsley had to do to write this book--it is remarkably well-researched, fun to read, and deserves great praise." --Vint Cerf, Internet Pioneer and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google, Inc. "Before he was the god of sexy computers, Steve Jobs sold blue boxes to Hollywood stars and Bay Area hippies. Exploding the Phone connects the cultural lines that run from hacking Ma Bell to building personal computers. Here, for your amusement, is the story of the frothy counterculture that helped create today's connected world." --Thomas A. Bass, author of The Eudaemonic Pie and The Spy Who Loved Us "Seldom are criminals this much fun." --Robert Sabbag, author of Snow Blind "An extremely interesting and engrossing read." --Slashdot "A highly engaging history of the telephone itself and plenty of intrigue." --Booklist "Phil Lapsley's great history of those hackers is packed with schemes, plots, discoveries, and brainy, oddball personalities... [The stories] he uncovers--and the questions he poses, about the nature of the relationship between criminality, curiosity, and technology--is compelling, fascinating stuff." --Portland Mercury "Lapsley takes up one of the more unusual chapters of the American underground... Lapsley's knack for detail and his impressive research will have tech phreaks and non-phreaks, well, freaking... It's impossible to set this book aside... One way or another Exploding The Phone will probably be one of the most talked about books this year." --PopMatters "Exploding the Phone manages to pull of the seemingly impossible--make one nostalgic for the days of busy signals, operators and rotary dials." --Winnipeg Free Press "Always entertaining and clear without being excessively technical ... a well-documented work of historical value... Highly recommended." --Choice "Lapsley more than ably conveys the nuances of this fascinating slice of technological history ... and his enlightening new interviews with most of the major phreaks as well as AT&T security officers form one of the most significant levels of his tremendous research." --School Library Journal "Lapsley's delightful account ... sheds light on an underappreciated chapter in the history of technology." --Reason

About the Author

Phil Lapsley co-founded two high technology companies in the San Francisco Bay Area and was a consultant at McKinsey & Company where he advised Fortune 100 companies on strategy. He holds a Master's degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences from U. C. Berkeley and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Lapsley has been interviewed by NPR and the BBC and quoted in The New York Times and Boston Globe on telephone and computer security issues, and is the author of one textbook, sixteen patents, an Internet standard, and many technical articles.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 23 May 2013
Format: Hardcover
Before there was cybercrime, there was phone hacking. Teenagers, mostly boys, would con the phone company into giving them free long distance phone calls. In those mid-twentieth century days, long distance was expensive and something of a big deal. But these kids didn't have friends around the world they wanted to call. Most of them, a geeky bunch of tech-heads, barely had friends in their own neighborhoods. This wasn't about getting free phone calls. It was about solving a puzzle. They were breaking the secret code of the phone company. It was fun.

Why the phone company? Partly because it had a widespread and sophisticated technological system that had inspired hacking from the first days of the telephone. (Author Phil Lapsley, an engineer and former phone hacker, includes an entertaining history of the telephone and early hackers.) And because almost every home had a telephone in it and pay phones could be found everywhere. This was just the foot in the door that a hacker needed.

Lapsley, in what is apparently his first book for a general audience, has done a tremendous job of gathering the interviews, newspaper accounts, court transcripts, and Freedom of Information Act documents to make this a fascinating story of the rise and fall of phone hackers, as well as the rise and fall of the phone company. He explains the technical bits clearly so that even those of us who are technologically-challenged get how it was done. But he makes the individuals the focus, so this is mostly about the hackers themselves.

For anyone who enjoys a good caper a la Catch Me If You Can: The True Story Of A Real Fake, Exploding the Phone is a fun ride.
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By gurth on 22 Nov 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Very interesting read. I had heard about phreaking and come across issues of 2600 previously so this was a welcomed refresher on the scene.
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By Paul on 21 July 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Great overview of the phone hacking scene that existed before the internet (and modern digital equipment) made it obsolete. A very engaging read, highly recommend.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I caught the phone phreaking bug late in the 90's in the UK and once bitten I was literally hooked on exploring the global telephone system.

Having just finished this book I can safely say that this is the one definitive text which is well researched and referenced on the history of telephone system exploration by people who would later be called phone phreaks and hackers.

It not only explains the technology in use at the time and the hacks around the systems in place but the social background of the people involved, some who later go on to change the world in which we live. (Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs to name but a few).

Its a narrow (some would say geek) subject but a must read for anyone interested in the telephone system.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 139 reviews
43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
An almost total success, and better than Steven Levy's "Hackers" 11 Jan 2013
By Neurasthenic - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I had not expected to particularly like this book -- I was wary about the subtitle, "The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell," figuring that the story of the early phone phreaks had in fact been told many times, and that if the book cover contained such sensationalism, the content of the book was likely to be of little value.

I was wrong. The material in this book is new, and interesting, and fun, it's written with passion and an understanding of what motivated these early phreaks and what we owe them today (good and bad). The book contains some historical discussion of the development of the phone system, written with as much humor as that topic allows, but it's comprised mostly of the stories of the young men who figured out the vulnerabilities of the system and began to explore and exploit them in the 1960s and early 1970s. (Lapsley's first phreak actually dates to the mid-1950s, which was quite surprising to me, as I had no idea anybody had figured out 2600 that early).

Lapsley devoted years to researching this book, and it shows. He spoke with a large fraction of the players in the early phreaking world, and as he tells their stories, certain patterns become clear to the reader. The early hackers were all high school or college boys, many were blind, they were fascinated by telephones and became familiar with their odd clicks and tones. They then got their hands on the The Bell Systems Journal and began exploring the system. These early phreaks were not primarily interested in making free calls, and many of them objected to Lapsley that they "didn't have anybody to call anyway." The sweep of Lapsley's interviews mark the superiority of this book over Hackers, which always feels as though it is giving a small group of people credit for the work of masses.

The discoveries of the early phreaks -- the ability to make free calls, and conference calls, and to route calls through selected cities, and even into supposedly secure military networks, were eventually described in great detail to phone system engineers who initially didn't believe that what was being described was possible.

Lapsley describes how the findings of the early phreaks leaked out into the wider world, first through some loose-lipped comrades, and later through famous articles in Esquire and other publications. (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak enter the story here, and it's fascinating to read how their early "blue boxes" landed in the hands of Hollywood celebrities, and how close the two probably came to getting arrested. How different the world would have been had that happened).

Many of the characters described in the book were new to me, and it's gratifying to see them getting credit here. It was also nice to see the involvement of Harvard radio station WHRB credited, a story not many know. A few "heroes" of the early phreaking world, especially John Draper ("Captain Crunch") are cut down to size.

The book ends warmly -- changes in the network rendered the old techniques useless, the advent of personal computers drew away the audience of electronics tinkerers, and people moved on to hacking new and different things. The spirit remains, but is dedicated to new challenges.

I had only two problems with the book. First, Lapsley tends to use some sloppy grammar and slang. A particular discovery is described as "tasty," for example, and we are told that a technique "sucked". Did this book not have an editor? Also, he is in a few places insufficiently skeptical of the stories he was told. One early phreak told Lapsley that in 1967, as a sophomore at Harvard, he didn't know where the library was. Nonsense; Harvard Yard isn't that big and the library is the biggest building there. The phreak was probably joking, to emphasize his indifference as a student, but Lapsley reported it as fact.

These are minor problems, though. On the whole, the book is compelling and fun and interesting and totally worth reading.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
All Circuits Are Busy Now... 7 Jan 2013
By Robert Stinnett - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Let me sum up this book in one word, "WOW!" From the first page until the very last I was taken back to my childhood. Even though I grew up in the 80s, past the phone phreaker prime, I fondly remember much of what the author refers to in this book. Growing up in St. Louis, as a young child, I remember the sounds the phone used to make as we dialed long distance numbers. The clicks, clacks and distant "tone" sounds you would here. Living only one block away from the Central Office, it always fascinated me to walk by that big building and wonder just what was going on inside there. How did the telephone really work?

This book takes you through a fascinating history of the Phreakers vs. Ma Bell. You'll find out a lot of what was going on both inside and outside of AT&T during the 60s, 70s and even early 80s. If you are not already familiar with how the telephone system works, you'll be taken on a journey that will have you understanding just exactly what all those noises and sounds were that you used to hear when dialing your phone. Kerklunk! You're on a long distance trunk line!

Much of what the author goes into detail about is obtained through interviews with those who actually participated in the phreaking movement, worked for Ma Bell, or was obtained through declassified documents. You quickly find out that what started all of this was the fact that Bell Labs published the exact details of how the phone system worked back in the 1960s -- you could literally walk into any research library and read it for yourself. The phreakers just took this information and like any curious student, ran with it.

Even though this book is quite lengthy, I finished it in less than a week. I just couldn't put it down. If you know anyone who either lived during this period and was involved in phreaking, or if you know someone with a curious mind, this book is a must read!
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
A Wonderful Account of Stories That Could Have Been Lost to History 18 Jan 2013
By Lon J. Seidman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
We know much about the corporate history behind the technology that makes up our every day lives, but often so little about the hackers and curiosity seekers that molded and sometimes created the technologies that are literally changing the world.

In this book author Phil Lapsley tracks down dozens of the best "phone phreaks" of the mid to late 20th century to hear their stories about hacking the telephone network. These young hackers figured out a way to disrupt the largest company the world had ever seen. Many of these hackers went on to be pioneers of the information age, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who, before building the computer that made them famous, marketed an illegal but beautifully designed "blue box" that tricked AT&T's electromechanical switches into making free long distance calls.

So many of these stories would have gone unreported if it were not for Lapsley's efforts here. The best phreaks really were not in it for the glory or free phone calls but rather just exploring the largest electromechanical machine on the planet. Many only allowed Lapsley to use their phone phreak pseudonyms just in case the phone company was still out for retribution.

I've been fascinated with the early cutting edge users of technology and this book really adds to the historical record of the early days of the information age. Another book I highly recommend after reading this one is Kevin Mitnick's Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Finally, some rational perspective on phreaking 5 Feb 2013
By Daniel H. Hamilton - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Phil Lapsley has done what no other author I'm aware of has been able to: written a fun, accessible, complete history of "phone phreaking" -- the practice of exploring, using and sometimes defrauding the massive machine known as the telephone network.

If like me this topic has always fascinated you, then you know that wild hyperbole (such as the infamous 1971 Esquire magazine article) or insufferable ego (Kevin Mitnick and Tsutomu Shimomura come to mind) have conspired to obscure the facts of this intriguing phenomenon. "Exploding the Phone" certainly documents the hype and explores the wild personalities involved, but from an observation post removed enough to let the reader see this complex story with new perspective.

If this sounds like the story is boring, fear not. Even if talk of "crossbar 4A switches" makes your eyes glaze over, this a chronicle of some very unusual human beings and their lives literally inside this labyrinth. As much as I enjoy the geek aspects of this tale, I admit that a people story beats a machine story any day, and "Exploding" promises to be that and then delivers on the promise over and over. Unlike other works that have tried to capture the zeitgeist, Lapsley's research and writing acknowledge that it changed over time, that there are distinct eras within the phreaking history, and that there are important and interesting differences to be explored.

If I were going to nitpick at all, it would be to question the choice of Steve Wozniak to write the foreword. I'm guessing this was a "BOM" (Business Office Must) from the publisher. Woz does have an important role in the story, but his foreword is sophomoric and thin at best. He was probably tapped for his celebrity status more than his writing skills. But even if you skip those three pages, you still have more than 300 to go which practically turn themselves.

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Brings the pre-hactivist culture vividly to life 18 Jan 2013
By Malvin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"Exploding the Phone" by Phil Lapsley is a highly entertaining account of phone phreaking and its connection to the personal computing industry. Mr. Lapsley has meticulously researched the subject including numerous first-person interviews and Freedom of Information Act requests to bring this heretofore obscure tale of pre-hactivist culture vividly to life. Written for a general audience, this engrossing and interesting book should appeal to everyone interested in technology and the early computer movement.

As the legendary Steve Wozniak makes clear in his brief introduction, the phone phreak's quirky mixture of scientific curiosity, resourcefulness and mischeviousness defined an attitude that proved influenctial among the early pioneers of the computer technology industry. Mr. Lapsley explains how the phone system of the 20th century was configured to be the world's largest machine containing multiple points of vulnerability. We are introduced to the mostly young, male phreaks who discovered exploits and made common cause with their like-minded peers; and persisted for years despite the omnipresent threat of detection and prosecution.

Mr. Lapsley shows how the movement became politicized during the Vietnam era by a generation at war with the establishment. Although the phreaks themselves had little to no financial motivation, we see how mobsters and others law-evaders learned to coop the phreaks' innovations for their own selfish purposes. As the phreaks' adventures became increasingly irritating to the phone company and the national security state, stepped-up prosecution and the introduction of new digital switching systems soon spelled the end to the phreaking phenomenon. However, this was not before the phreaks had made a deep impression upon those who understood that technology could be used as a tool of empowerment and personal expression, including Wozniak and Steve Jobs who applied the insights learned from building telephone 'blue boxes' for the phone phreak market to their successful founding of Apple computer company.

I highly recommend this excellent book to everyone.
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