Blue Box

| February 2, 2013 | 0 Comments

Before Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs built Apple in the 1970s, they were phone phreaks.

The Blue Box was illegal, but the specifications for hacking into the telephone network were published in a telephone company journal and many youngsters with a flair for electronics built them.

So we’re sitting in the payphone trying to make a blue box call. And the operator comes back on the line. And we’re all scared and we’d try it again. … And she comes back on the line; we’re all scared so we put in money. And then a cop car pulls up. And Steve was shaking, you know, and he got the blue box back into my pocket. I got it– he got it to me because the cop turned to look in the bushes for drugs or something, you know? So I put the box in my pocket. The cop pats me down and says, “What’s this?” I said, “It’s an electronic music synthesizer.” Wasn’t too musical. Second cop says, “What’s the orange button for?” “It’s for calibration,” says Steve.

— Steve Wozniak,
lecture at Computer History Museum, 2002

Wozniak and Jobs Blue Box, ca. 1972. The Blue Box allowed electronics hobbyists to make free telephone calls.

Wozniak and Jobs Blue Box, ca. 1972. The Blue Box allowed electronics hobbyists to make free telephone calls.

The “Blue Box” was a simple electronic gizmo that bypassed telephone company billing computers, allowing anyone to make free telephone calls anywhere in the world.

The “two Steves” had a great deal of fun building and using them for “ethical hacking,” with Wozniak building the kits and Jobs selling them—a pattern which would emerge again and again in the lives of these two innovators. (Wozniak once telephoned the Vatican, pretended to be Henry Kissinger and asked to speak to the Pope—just to see if he could. When someone answered, Woz got scared and hung up.)

These early playful roots are what Wozniak remembers most fondly of Jobs. As columnist Mike Cassidy recalled in a San Jose Mercury News interview, what these two friends most remembered was “not bringing computers to the masses … or the many ‘aha’ moments designing computers. Instead, it’s the time the two tried to unfurl a banner depicting a middle finger salute from the roof of Homestead High School…” or their many Blue Box exploits. Walter Isaacson, Jobs’s official biographer, cites Jobs reflecting on the Blue Box:

If it hadn’t been for the Blue Boxes, there would have been no Apple. I’m 100% sure of that. Woz and I learned how to work together, and we gained the confidence that we could solve technical problems and actually put something into production.

(Isaacson, p. 30)

So far with the story told by Steve Jobs building ‘blue boxes’ about making free phone calls around the world. Now hear it directly from the man who gave Steve Job the idea. Steve Wozniak found a “fiction” article with too much detail to be false. They helped themselves to the library at the Stanford Linear Accelerator and discovered the article was, in fact, real.
But he emphasizes they called around the world to explore not to rip off Ma Bell. All his legit calls were made from home and he had a high phone bill as a result.

(This is an Oct. 4, 1984 speech the Apple co-founder gave to the Denver Apple Pi club at the Colorado School of mines. NOTE: This is assembled from two dubs to fix playback errors. Every word is included, but video quality worsens in the second half.) Kudos to Vince Patton who discovered this video.

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Source: Computer History Museum

Silicon Valley Historical Association

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Category: Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak

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