Stories – The Phreaks and the Phreakers

There were a number of people who became part of a sub-culture that was associated with the telephone. These people were collectively called either Phreaks or Phreakers. It is a term that was coined in the late 60s and early 70s for those who wanted to “hack” the telephone network. But it was much more than that. These people helped define a new way of life that in some instances we are still living in today. These people helped shape not only the history of the phone, but of computers and even the Internet as we know it today.

The Phreakers

Bill Acker (1953-2015)

Bill was one of the blind phone phreaks that eventually worked for Ma Bell. As a blind person, he was sense of hearing was better than most people. By his heightened sense of hearing, he was able to hear things differently or better than the average person. Even before he worked for the phone company, technicians knew that he had that keen ability and seeked out his knowledge. Eventually Bill did work for the phone company for 27 years. He always kept learning about the system and how to help fix it. After retirement he continued to work with technology with computers and even Voice over IP. Bill passed away from cancer in September 2015.

Joybubbles (1949-2007)

Joybubbles (born Joe Engressia Jr.) was an interesting person to say the least. Also born blind, he had a heightened sense of hearing as well. He also was known to have what was known as “perfect pitch” as he could whistle 2600 Hz, which at that time was a key frequency in the old telephone network. With some knowledge of how the long distance network worked, he managed to make long distance calls just by whistling 2600 Hz. Of course he managed to get himself in trouble with Ma Bell and was busted for it while in college.

Sadly through some life events, he reverted to his childhood and “stayed” at age 5 for the bulk of his later adult years. He was an avid fan of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and traveled to Pittsburgh in 1998 to listen to every episode over the span of six weeks.

During the last few years of his life, he became sort of an Internet celebrity. Though he had long given up phreaking, he was still fascinated with the telephone and was willing to talk to people about it. He even set up a weekly recording called “Stories and Stuff” where he talked about things in his life and supposedly his dealings with other people who had contacted him. However after his death, people tried to track down these people but come to find out that this people were most likely fictitious and used in his stories to make them sound more interesting.

He was not one to listen to doctors, however. He had health issues that made him wind up in the hospital, only to have himself checked out because he didn’t like to be there. Most likely he suffered a heart attack in the summer of 2007.

Through a mutual friend (Mark Cuccia, see below), I talked to Joe on a semi-regular basis for the last couple of years of his life. He was a very fascinating person and was honored to be part of his inner circle, even though it was brief.

Stories and Stuff –

Evan Doorbell (born circa 1957)

Evan Doorbell (I’m keeping his real name protected) became a phreak sort of by accident. He found where telephone announcement machines were wired together in such a way that makeshift conferences could take place. He found several of these on his native Long Island and things went from there, including getting introduced to Bill Acker (see above). Evan realized that the older analog world was going away, and with friend “Ben Decibel” they managed to record many hours of telephone calls onto cassette and reel to reel tapes for posterity. He is now in the process of editing and narrating many of these recordings for fellow telephone enthusiasts to enjoy. This can be found at the Evan Doorbell’s Telephone Tapes website, which is hosted by Telephone World as a favor to Evan. I met Evan through mutual friend Mark Cuccia (see below).

Mark Bernay (Richard Kashdan) (born circa 1945)

Mark Bernay was part of the 60s phreaking scene in both San Francisco, CA and Seattle, WA. He was also helped preserve the sounds of the telephone network for others to enjoy. He was known for informing people about “loop arounds” which were built-in conference loops that the phone company used for testing. Mark also recorded some sounds from pay phones in the Seattle, WA area in the 1960s and is on his site Phone Trips.

Al Diamond (aka Al Bernay) (1936-2008)

Al Diamond was also part of the 60s California phreak scene with Mark Bernay. His claim to fame was building makeshift conference systems at his house so people could call and conference from all over the country for free. These were later called “black boxes”. He also put on recordings where people dial in to to listen and hear how the phone system worked, or to learn how to work for him in the business of selling maps to homes of the Hollywood stars.

Captain Crunch (John Draper) (born 1943)

Captain Crunch is an interesting person to say the least. He came around at the same time as the 60s counter-culture. So he used what he knew to sort of get back at “the man” and that man was “Ma Bell” (AT&T). John earned his nickname by discovering (quite by accident) that the toy whistle that was found in Cap’n Crunch cereal in the 1960s just happned to be at the same frequency as the core frequency that ran the long distance network – 2600 Hz. Armed with this information he used it to make free long distance calls at a time when they were quite expensive. He later served time in jail for phone fraud, and even worked for Apple Computer for a short time with Steve Wozniak.

Honorable Mention – The Dedicated Telephone Enthusiasts

Mark Cuccia (1961-2014)

Mark Cuccia was not a phone phreak, but more of a dedicated phone enthusiast. He wasn’t interested in anything illegal, but was more concerned on how the network worked, more as an early Internet and web of sorts.

His first passion was the history of AT&T and the phone system layout in his native New Orleans, LA area. He studied the history of switching systems, the network, how it all interconnected, and numbering (area codes, prefixes, and the like). He was passionate about the history of the phone system and how it got to be what it eventually became.

Mark was interested in numbering and routing more than anything else. In fact, he was interested in making sure that the phone company ran correctly and routed calls corrected. During the heyday of multiple area code splits and changes (1995-2007), he would test the network to determine if calls were being routed correctly after splits were announced. Was he able to reach the test recordings via various methods via multiple long distance companies, etc. Was he able to complete it via the dial direct platforms, calling card platforms, etc. That was what made Mark unique is his undying quest to make sure things were done right and any oversight was corrected. He worked many in the industry to make sure that if he found a problem that it was communicated to the right people to get it fixed.

Mark’s day job when I first talked to him in 1997 was working at the accounts payable at the law library at Tulane University library in New Orleans. In early 2005 he “retired” from his job. I’m not sure if he was fired, voluntarily left, or somewhere in between. I do know he and his sisters had inherited money from an uncle that had died in late 2004 or so. So much so that Mark didn’t have to work after that. Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he moved with some friends to Lafayette, LA. He didn’t want to wait to see his home get rebuilt.

For whatever reason, Mark never learned to drive or owned a car in his life. While living in New Orleans he always was able to use either public transportation or take taxis anywhere he needed to go. Sadly Lafayette didn’t have a good public transportation system and he always had to depend on friends to help him go places, including seeing a doctor. Mark had been a heavy smoker, didn’t eat right and didn’t exercise. He was sadly quite obese and in poor health when I met him in Atlanta in 2005 (just after Katrina, staying at a fellow phone enthusiast’s house Stan Cline – who is also no longer with is). Time didn’t improve things and Mark’s health decreased. By the time he died in January 2014, I didn’t talk to him as much as I used to since the phone network as a whole was “dying down” and not changing as frequently. I’m not 100% sure what happened, but my guess is that he died of a heart attack because he hadn’t been able to see a doctor (again, due to the lack of transportation) about his ongoing health issues. I found out of his death through his cousin Ryan Landry on a posting on Telecom Digest (where I had found Mark’s postings).

Through Mark I was able to meet both Evan Doorbell and Joybubbles. If it wasn’t for Mark, I wouldn’t have probably continued on this site in his honor and that of other telephone enthusiasts, phreaks, and fans.