Remarkable Tales: Steve Jobs and the illegal blue box that built Apple.



2017-10-31 15:43:59

In this week's Remarkable Tales, we bring you the story of how two teenage pranksters and an illegal homemade device gave birth to the world's biggest company.

Before they created the Apple-1 and revolutionized the computer industry, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak used their genius for a slightly less noble cause: scamming phone companies.

The pair started their first business in 1972 building blue boxes, an illegal device which allowed users to make free long-distance phone calls.

This dodgy business venture would eventually grow into a corporation valued at over $900 billion, and create technology which would change the world.

Which is why, when one of these original boxes hit the auction block at Bonhams back in December 2017, it smashed its estimate to fetch $125,000.

It's a true piece of history in the making.

The story of blue boxes began in the early 1960s, with a simple article in a specialist science magazine.

When you make a phone call, each of the numbers on a key pad generates a specific tone - and back in 1960 the Bell System Technical Journal revealed the specific frequencies of each number used to route calls.

The original article that started the phone phreaking craze.

The original article that started the phone phreaking craze.

A handful of curious and technically-minded enthusiasts quickly realized that they could call any number they wanted for free, just by playing the right series of tones into the receiver.

All they had to do first was reset the line using a frequency tone of 2600 Hz. Some hackers trained themselves to whistle the tone, whilst others used the whistles of exotic birds.

And in the mid-1960s, Cap'n Crunch breakfast cereal gave away free plastic whistles that could be used to generate the exact tone.

The technique was then perfected by a legendary phone hacker named John Draper, who took on the moniker of Captain Crunch and began to exploit the system.

Throughout the 1960s, these self-proclaimed 'phone phreakers' made free calls and explored secret numbers within the phone system, using blue box machines designed to generate number tones.

By 1972, an article in Esquire magazine had brought the practice to light, and many 'phreakers' including Draper were charged with phone fraud.

But the article also caught the attention of Steve Wozniak, then a student at Berkely University, and together with his high school friend Steve Jobs they set about building their own blue box.

(Image: Bonhams)

(Image: Bonhams)

Wozniak later recalled the moment they discovered the information they needed during research at the Stanford library:

"I froze and grabbed Steve and nearly screamed in excitement that I'd found it. We both stared at the list, rushing with adrenaline. We kept saying things like 'Oh, ....!' and 'Wow, this thing is for real!' I was practically shaking, with goose bumps and everything. It was such a Eureka moment"

Wozniak then got in touch with Draper, who visited him on campus, and set about designing the world's first digital blue box.

"I swear to this day...I have never designed a circuit I was prouder of," wrote Wozniak in his autobiography. "A set of parts that could do three jobs at once instead of two. I still think it was incredible."

Wozniak and Jobs then began using their new blue box to explore hidden numbers within the directory. Wozniak's phone phreak name was 'Berkeley Blue', and Jobs called himself 'Oaf Tobar'.

Steve Wozniak using his blue box

Steve Wozniak using his blue box

During one famous occasion, Wozniak even managed to get through to the Vatican claiming to be Henry Kissinger, and asked to speak to the Pope although his holiness was sadly asleep at the time.

Sensing a unique opportunity, Jobs then suggested they begin selling blue boxes to other Berkely students, and the pair began their first business venture together.

Jobs went around campus knocking on random dorm room doors and asking to speak to the 'guy who makes all the free phone calls with the blue box'.

The name of the 'guy' was always made up, but if the student showed an interest in the idea of free calls, Jobs would then try to sell them a box for $150 each.

The boxes cost around $40 to build, and together Jobs and Wozniak made an impressive profit of around $6,000.

It's estimated they sold less than 100 blue boxes, and today just a handful of their originals survive, as most were later confiscated and destroyed.

It was a highly illegal scheme, and although they were never arrested they came close; they were once caught using a blue box to make a call from a gas station after Wozniak's car broke down, and when the police turned up they managed to convince them that the device was actually a synthesizer.

In the mid-1970s many other 'phreakers' were caught red-handed, and ended up in jail. Had Jobs and Wozniak been busted themselves, the history of computing may have been very different.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in the early days of Apple Inc.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in the early days of Apple Inc.

But instead they got lucky, and planted the seeds which would become the world's biggest company.

Just a few years later, that same combination of Wozniak's technical expertise and Jobs' marketing genius created the first Apple-1 computer – and we all know how that worked out.

"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," Jobs later said of their scheme.

"If it hadn't been for the Blue Boxes, there would have been no Apple. I'm 100% sure of that."

In hindsight, it's ironic to think that a man who began his career defrauding phone companies would one day build his own company, and sell more than 1 billion phones around the world.

But as perhaps the ultimate salesman of the past 50 years, Jobs would surely be delighted that a plastic box he built as a teenager for $40 is now worth $125,000.

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