The Fable of Captain Crunch

With the recent release of less than fully clothed photos of celebrities and people wanting to be celebrities, we decided that for this week’s post we would explore the history of hacking.

Then as is usually the case we got distracted down one of the many lane ways that archival searches tend to take you.

And we met Captain Crunch – one John Draper.

**

In 1964, after taking some college courses, Mr. Draper joined the Air Force, which his parents thought would provide much-needed discipline. He was sent to Alaska and later Maine, where he served as a radar technician. Since the soldiers had only one phone line on which to call home, Mr. Draper began tinkering with the access codes and figured out how to make free calls through the local switchboard.

After an honorable discharge in 1968, he built gear for several companies in the San Francisco Bay area. But his work, much of which was military-related, was out of step with the counterculture blooming around him. Mr. Draper grew his hair and began spending more time on a pirate radio station, which he operated from the back of his green Volkswagen van to make it harder for authorities to track the signal. He also turned his attention to the phone system, an attraction for like-minded techies before the arrival of personal computers.

Mr. Draper learned how to make free calls by imitating the tones used by the phone company.

He learned from other “phone phreaks” — as the hackers called themselves — including blind teenagers with near-perfect pitch. Mr. Draper learned that a toy whistle found in a cereal box would also imitate the required tones, earning him the nickname Cap’n Crunch.

The point was not just to make free calls but to explore and learn from the phone company’s rich and complicated system. On one occasion, Mr. Draper says he learned the code word needed to speak with the president — “Olympus” — and got through to someone on a secure line he thought was President Nixon. Mr. Draper says he told the man about a toilet-paper shortage in Los Angeles.

Authorities began to take notice, particularly after a lengthy article on phone phreaking appeared in the October 1971 edition of Esquire magazine. Mr. Draper, the group’s ringleader, was arrested for the first time several months later on charges of wire fraud, and received a five-year probation.

The Esquire article also caught the attention of Steve Wozniak, an eventual Apple co-founder, who invited Mr. Draper to his dorm room at the University of California at Berkeley. When Mr. Draper appeared that evening, Mr. Wozniak, then 21, was taken aback by his guest’s appearance and odor, Mr. Wozniak wrote in his recent autobiography.

“Are you Cap’n Crunch?” Mr. Wozniak asked in disbelief, according to the book.

“I am he,” Mr. Draper responded as he strode into the room.

Mr. Draper showed Mr. Wozniak and a friend, Mr. Jobs, how to build a device that could produce telephone tones. The pair turned the knowledge into a small business on the Berkeley campus, their first collaboration before founding Apple a few years later.

Mr. Wozniak employed Mr. Draper at Apple, where as a contractor in 1977 he designed a device that could immediately identify phone signals and lines — such as ones that made free calls — something modems were not able to do for a decade. The technology would later be used for tone-activated calling menus, voice mail and other purposes.

**

On a recent morning at a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Burbank, Calif., where he goes when he has enough money, Mr. Draper ordered his usual breakfast: eggs and bacon first, to be followed five to seven minutes later by grilled pancakes loaded with butter and syrup.

The first course arrived. “The bacon’s too greasy, I can’t accept these,” he shouted at the waiter. Mr. Draper sends back his bacon about 70% of the time. He says that since he has no opposing teeth, the bacon needs to be crisp enough to break off in his mouth. He lost most of his teeth from infrequent dental care, which he blames on his lack of health insurance.

After breakfast, Mr. Draper returned to his one-room apartment beside a four-lane expressway. The apartment was in squalor, with open cereal boxes, clothes in trash bags, computers and old newspapers strewn about. Mr. Draper left an angry voice message for a client who hadn’t paid for some programming work. He fretted that without the money he would have difficulty covering his electricity bill that month.

“I’m blacklisted, man, a permanent menace to society, I guess,” he said. “It’s too bad because there are some things I think I could contribute.”

**

The fable of Captain Crunch!

Post based on “The Twilight Years of Cap’n Crunch” Wall Street Journal January 13, 2007.

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