Extra Goodies

Below are goodies that could not be included in the book due to space constraints. Enjoy.

Extra Goodies — Overseas Dialing

Overseas calling has been around for a long, long time. In Telephone, historian John Brooks wrote:

In 1930, the rate for a New York-London call was reduced from $45 to $30 for the first three minutes [a whopping $415 in 2012 dollars!], with proportionate reductions for calls from other points in the United States, and in 1932 alone, South Africa, Thailand, Egypt, Peru, Portugal, the Bahamas, Venezuela, and Columbia were added to the countries that could be reached from any telephone in the United States.

But in those days it wasn't as simple as just picking up the phone and dialing an international number. International calls were completed via special overseas operators, much the same way that domestic long-distance calls were placed prior to direct distance dialing.

This began to change in the late 1960s when AT&T took the first steps towards automating international calling. As early as 1967, as an experiment, the Bell System began allowing certain customers in New York City to directly dial Paris and London. The experiment was "very successful despite the need for special dialing instructions, the unfamiliar tones and signals encountered, and longer completion times." So AT&T made the automation permanent, rolling out its first official "International Direct Distance Dialing" service in May 1970. The initial service was limited: you could only reach the United Kingdom, and you could only do so from a handful of areas in the United States.

The phone phreaks were on this like a bunch of international whistlers. Prior to automated international dialing, it had been possible to reach overseas operators with a blue box by dialing special codes. For example, the United Kingdom was KP+914+1190+ST and France was KP+212+11331+ST. Later these codes were standardized to 160 plus a country code, so the UK became KP + 160440 + ST, France KP + 160330 + ST, and Hong Kong KP + 160852 + ST. But once you got the international operator on the line, you'd have to convince her to place a call for you by pretending to be a switchman on the test board.

"Well, You Just Dial 182 ..."

Automation changed this, just like it did for domestic long-distance. Bill Acker recalls that the way the phone phreaks learned how to dial their own international calls — no operator required — was via a happy accident. In 1970 John "Captain Crunch" Draper happened to spend several weeks in the UK. While he was there his friend and fellow phone phreak from Los Angeles, Mark Robbins, wanted to call him. Robbins dialed his local operator and asked to be connected to the overseas operator for the UK. The operator responded that she could dial the call directly for him. Intrigued, he asked how this was possible. The operator said, "Well, you just dial 182 ..."

Towards the end of Pink Floyd's "Young Lust" at 2:47 you can hear an operator-assisted international call to the UK. At 3:13 you can hear the 480 Hz second dial tone of the 182 overseas sender followed by a burst of MF tones.

The phreaks quickly verified that dialing KP + 182 + ST with a blue box did the trick. It connected them to an "overseas sender" — in essence, a special circuit in a modified 4A toll crossbar that would collect the lengthy string of digits needed to dial an international call and would then outpulse the digits in the right format over the right circuit to reach an overseas number. A phone phreak would use his blue box to dial KP + 182 + ST and wait for the second dial tone, a somewhat eerie sounding 480 Hz, or 4th octave B, that indicated he was connected to an international sender. To dial the UK, he'd then send KP + 44 + whatever the number was in the UK + ST and the call would go right through.

Acker and Joe Engressia even went to the trouble of calling a switchman in the White Plains 4A to ask questions about the new setup, to make sure they understood exactly how it worked. Acker says, "It was exciting!" Word rippled throughout the phone phreak network: "Hey, check out KP 182 ST!"

Unfortunately, says Acker, "With 182, as far as we knew, there was exactly one place you could dial: the UK."

"A Thunderclap Happened Inside My Head"

That changed one day in the fall of 1970. Acker was at the Lavelle School for the Blind where he busy procrastinating. "I had to go and study," he said, "and that wasn't where it was at for me." In an effort to put off this fate as long as possible, Acker was killing some time by calling the New York Telephone "Newsline." Back in the 1960s and 1970s newslines were one of the ways the telephone company communicated with its employees. Essentially the equivalent of an internal web site today, a newsline was a number that telephone company employees could call to hear a recording of the latest news about the telephone industry, straight from the horse's mouth. Newslines were often configured not to "supe" so they were free calls. Naturally, telephone company employees weren't the only callers to newslines — phone phreaks often called them as well, just to keep tabs on what Ma Bell was up to.

Acker remembers the newsline that day mentioned that "starting today, a few offices in Manhattan can now call Belgium, France, and Germany." Well, thought Acker, how nice for them. The newsline recording ran out, and with it, Acker's excuse to procrastinate further. "I hung up the phone and resigned myself to a dismal couple of hours in study hall," he says. "I walked down the hall and, as I walked, a thunderclap happened inside my head: if they can call more countries then that must mean ...

Acker executed a 180-degree turn, stopped by his room to grab his blue box, went straight to the payphone, dialed a number, whistled off, and then dialed KP + 183 + ST. He was rewarded with a 480 Hz second dial tone. "I just figured they'd be consecutively numbered," he says. Acker had just discovered the newest international sender. More countries were now open to the phone phreaks.

Eventually there would be a total of seven international switching centers or gateways:

182 White Plains 2, New York
183 New York 2, New York
184 Pittsburgh 2, Pennsylvania
185 Jacksonville, Florida
186 Oakland 3, California
187 Denver 3, Colorado
188 Montreal, Canada

(Terms like "New York 2" or "Oakland 3" were the telephone company names for the specific central offices.)

In phone phreak parlance, these were usually just called "international senders." Each ISC was the primary gateway to particular overseas countries (for example, Oakland was responsible for many of the countries in Asia), but other international switching centers had "overflow" connections to secondary countries as well, in case the primary gateway became congested.

By the mid-1970s the network had evolved to the point that it was no longer necessary to know which sender was associated with which destination country. Rather, with a blue box, one could simply dial KP + 011 + country-code + ST and the network would route you to the appropriate ISC.

Sources and Notes

Much of the above, plus all Acker quotes, are from author interviews with Bill Acker, 2010-2012.

"In 1930": John Brooks, Telephone: The First 100 Years (New York: Harper & Row), 1975, p. 202.

"directly dial Paris and London", "very successful": Amos E. Joel, Jr, A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Switching Technology (1925-1975), p. 192.

"London Dials Here Directly," New York Times, March 2, 1970. (Notes that New York to London service was to begin March 15, 1970.)

"Direct Dialing Expanded," New York Times, December 6, 1970.

Perhaps also of interest:

L. J. Scott, "Overseas Dialing: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow", Bell Laboratories Record, May 1970.