Extra Goodies

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

Extra Goodies — Hoyt Stearns, Jack Gaffey, and Paul Egly

"We hacked the phone because it was there, because it was a challenge. We were explorers." — Jack Gaffey

It was December 1960 when Paul Egly and Jack Gaffey figured out Ma Bell's little secret. Egly had always been fascinated with the phone, Gaffey remembers, and his fascination was infectious. "We heard the [MF] tones and wondered what they were," he says. They set about about trying to solve this mystery with all the focus and tenacity that a pair of high-school juniors could muster.

They discovered the magic 2,600 Hz tone and found that they could hang up a long-distance call with it. It wasn't a stretch to get from that to whistle-pulse dialing. Just like Joe Engressia in 1957, Egly had perfect pitch — he could put his lips up to a telephone handset and whistle himself a long-distance call. "Paul could do it just by whistling," Gaffey remembers. "Not me. I modified a dog whistle. I cut down the part of the whistle that adjusted the pitch."

Egly and Gaffey soon included another like-minded student in their project: Hoyt Stearns. "Our work on the telephone became a friendly competition, seeing who could make a discovery first. We used to call each other right after we got home from school, even though we lived two blocks from each other," Gaffey remembers. "We were best friends."

The southern California trio recorded the MF tones on long-distance calls but found them too weak to analyze, so they resorted to a bit of subterfuge: they called the operator and pretended to be technicians on the test board. "We need to tune your operator's console, could you please give us 30 seconds of each digit?" They recorded the tones and found them to be plenty loud enough to analyze.

Now it was just a question of generating the tones. "It was easy to build oscillators with buttons," Gaffey says. "What was hard was to connect two oscillators together and not have one influence the other. They would drift or pull together and start to synchronize." Such challenges notwithstanding, Gaffey figures that they had a multifrequency generator — a blue box — working by the summer of 1961.

"We weren't doing it as a business or to make free calls," Gaffey says. "We were doing it just to do it. We were exploring the system." Besides, he adds, "After you got it work, who were you going to call?" They didn't know anybody far away except for maybe their relatives, and they figured calling them would be a mistake: "If you call your relatives they talk to your mom and say, 'Oh, we had the nicest chat with Jack yesterday,'" Gaffey remembers. And that would raise some unfortunate questions. "You don't want that," he says.

The next part of the story comes as no surprise: "Yes, we got in trouble with the phone company," Gaffey says. They had been doing a lot of experimenting from his house in Arcadia, a foothill suburb of Los Angeles that was served by California Water and Telephone, an independent company. "Mr. Kelley [from California Water and Telephone] came and gave my mother a lecture while I hid in the hallway to listen to it," Gaffey remembers. "Yeah, we were supposed to stop, and no, we didn't. We just did more experimenting over at Paul's house."

In 1962 the trio's high school days came to an end and they headed off to different colleges. It was two years later, at one of those colleges, that Hoyt Stearns and some new friends of his ran into a spot of bother. "Machine That Fools Telephone Equipment Results In 3 Arrests," said one 1964 newspaper headline. "Three Cornellians Charged in Alleged Telephone Fraud," read another. Stearns and two other college classmates had been demonstrating a blue box at a fraternity party at Cornell University. As one newspaper account told it, police and telephone company agents entered the fraternity house. "[Police sergeant] Cornelius said, 'the band was playing but nobody was dancing and the bar was deserted.' They made their way up stairs to a student room where they said they found a group of about 40 persons watching a demonstration involving an ordinary telephone and a home made electronic instrument which looks like a component of a high fidelity set."

In the end Stearns had to make restitution of $276 to the telephone company and go before a student council meeting to receive his academic punishment. Of the latter he recalls, "Nothing much happened except a tongue lashing, so to speak, but that night, the Vienna Symphony was playing Bruckner's symphony #9 on the campus, but the inquisition was overlapping the start of the performance. Rushing to the performance, I ran into all the inquisitors who were actually quite forgiving and appreciating that I loved Bruckner also."

Gaffey sums up their high-school explorations this way: "I see us as the predecessors of the computer hackers. We were just having fun, exploring the system, trying to figure out how it worked, not trying to steal long distance services."

Sources and Notes

Author interviews with Hoyt Stearns, 2007-2010, and Jack Gaffey, 2012.

"As the group entered the house": Don Greet, Ithaca Journal, February 17, 1964, p. 2 [db1057].

Also Interesting:

A wonderful 1964 student paper written by a Cornell classmate's of Stearns describing his explorations of the telephone system.

Paul Egly's 2005 obituary.