Book Review: Exploding the Phone

Review by Rob T Firefly

Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley
Grove Press, 431 pages, $26.00
ISBN 978-0802120618

I'm a longtime phone phreak as well as a voracious history buff.  For as long as I've explored and participated in the scene, I've always tried to learn as much as possible about its origins.  Things like the infamous "Secrets of the Little Blue Box" (TXT) article from October 1971 Esquire were required reading, but it was a mainstream take on the scene; from the outside, looking in.  The various (often incompatible) takes on phreak history found in text files, message threads, and random debates provided tenuous links to where things had really come from, but I always felt there must be more behind all those scenes to learn about.

There have been good books on the hacker scene over the years, but it's generally been rare for phreaking to get all that much of a look in.  A proper history of phreaking itself hadn't really turned up until the release of Exploding the Phone, by historian and HOPE speaker Phil Lapsley.

After a foreword by former phreak Steve Wozniak, Exploding the Phone hits the ground running by throwing you right into a typical story.  We follow the adventures of a 1960s college student as he stumbles into the early phreaking world by way of a simple puzzle he encountered by chance, the answers to which kept opening up new questions.  Before he knew it, he found himself embroiled in a bizarre and fascinating world that begged for further exploration.  It's a very familiar type of story to many phreaks, all of whom might have a parallel story to tell.  Many of these stories will be related later in the book, spiraling together in all sorts of interesting ways.

Lapsley also weaves in a differently-rewarding narrative: the history of the telephone network itself, from its 19th century birth through decades of technical and business machinations.  It's an enlightening picture of the birth of the phreaks' playground.  Lapsley continues to take us back-and-forth between the technological and organizational history of the telephone industry, and the phone phreaking scene which began to explore it.  We switch back to the phreaks, we get the birth of a Blue Box in 1960, an early example of scanning phone numbers in 1959, and the independent paths that led various phreaks to discover the joys of 2600 hertz.  The story continues.

Lapsley expertly winds together the threads of the continuing story of the telephone network, "the largest machine in the world, and the phone phreaking individuals and communities which sprang up around, inside, and underneath it.  Told through years of interviews with early phreaks as well as the authority figures and telco employees who found themselves working against them, the story turns out to be vastly more fascinating than either side might have ever suspected it to be.  Lapsley allows the very human stories of those involved to speak for themselves.  From the earliest tentative explorations by newly-empowered telephone users in the earliest days of operator-less telephone use, to the coalescing scene in the early 1960s, through the Yippie-era and social upheaval, to the chaotic world of electronic switching and the telco breakup of the 1970s, to where it all ended up today, everything comes together to form a fascinating oral history of where our scene and its pioneers came from and where things may be headed for us.

As a bonus, Lapsley provides what is, quite frankly, a completely insane amount of chapter notes.  This is no quick bullet list to skim at the end; this is a fully-referenced 70-page expansion to the book which really fleshes things out.  In addition to the citations and author comments, the notes make use of a numbering system which fleshes out Lapsley's citations in an online manner; source documents, articles, FOIA requests, and more are available to read via the book's website.  What might seem like a simple interactivity gimmick actually leads to a further treasure trove of historical data as the reader is invited to browse years of Lapsley's research.

I highly recommend Exploding the Phone.  I found it a highly rewarding read, and I'd give it to a seasoned hacker or phreak as well as to an interested newbie.

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