In the spirit of Lifehacker’s evil week, this week’s profile focuses on a programmer who — while not actually evil in any sense of the word — operated on the wrong side of the law more often than not. Notable both for being an iconic figure in the hacking community and for working with Apple’s Steve Wozniak in the early days of Apple, meet John Draper — computer programmer and phone phreak extraordinaire.
Born in 1943 as the son of a United States Air Force engineer, Draper initially followed in his father’s footsteps, entering the Air Force In 1964. Even then, his predilection for doing things in a legally dubious manner was apparent — helping his fellow servicemen make free calls home from a station in Alaska, and once creating a pirate radio station when he was later stationed in Maine. He was honourably discharged in 1968, when he relocated to the incipient Silicon Valley. There, he continued in military-related positions for a short time, first as an engineering technician at National Semiconductor, and then at Hugle International where he worked on an early cordless phone design.
What The Phreak?
A blue box like those Draper helped develop
Phone phreaking was a practice that started in the late 1950s in the USA, experiencing its so-called ‘Golden Age’ through the 60s and 70s. It was essentially a precursor to computer hacking as we know it today — although instead of hacking computers, ‘phreaks’ would hack the phone lines. It all began in 1957 when Joe Engressia, a blind boy with perfect pitch, discovered that whistling the fourth E above middle C, at a frequency of 2600 Hz, would stop a dialled phone recording. A small community of phreaks slowly developed around this discovery, and collectively they learned how to exploit this knowledge to get free long-distance and international calls.
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Draper ended up getting involved in this community while testing a pirate radio transmitter he had built. He broadcast a telephone number for listeners to call, in order to get feedback on the reception his station was getting. It was through this number that the phreaks first got in contact with him — wanting help to develop a more high-tech answer to the practice of phreaking.
With the help of Engressia — who also went by the nickname Joybubbles — Draper discovered that a toy whistle packaged in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes produced the exact 2600 Hz tone that allowed control of single frequency phone systems. For example, one long whistle reset the line, essentially allowing the caller to enter an operator mode, from where they could use short whistles to dial a number, using a single tone for a “1”, two for a “2”, and so on. This whistle was also what gave Draper his long-lived nickname of ‘Captain Crunch’, along with a number of variations thereof.
Draper used this whistle to develop what was called a blue box — an electronic device that reproduced various tones used by the phone company, mainly for the purposes of placing free calls and generally causing mischief. Two far more well-known figures in the history of computing — that is, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak — also built blue boxes in their early days, with Jobs explaining a little more about the device in this 1994 interview:
What Jobs neglects to mention, of course, is that it was only with Draper’s help that the Apple founders built their first blue boxes — though we’ll get back to that in a minute.
Phreaks And Pranks
The legendary antics of phone phreaks in the 70s are as numerous as they are unverifiable. There’s the story of a couple of phreaks — of which one was allegedly Draper — who called up the White House, dropped President Nixon’s secret codename ‘Olympus’ and were soon put through to the President himself — only to tell him of a ‘national emergency’ that was occurring because Los Angeles had run out of toilet paper.
Another major phreak occurred in 1974, when two phone phreaks managed to tie up every single long-distance phone call coming into Santa Barbara, informing the inbound callers that they were stationed at a National Guard base outside of the city, where a freak nuclear accident had wiped out everything. They kept up this story for only half an hour, but it was enough to cause widespread panic before they backed out and restored the phone system to normal.
While some phone phreaks exploited the system for financial gain or more malicious intent, Draper was more interested in investigating how the system worked — a curiosity which he later adapted to his work on computer systems:
I don’t do that. I don’t do that anymore at all. And if I do it, I do it for one reason and one reason only. I’m learning about a system. The phone company is a System. A computer is a System, do you understand? If I do what I do, it is only to explore a system. Computers, systems, that’s my bag. The phone company is nothing but a computer.
The Esquire Magazine article that this quote came from was instrumental about teaching more of the general public about the secret art of phreaking — but it also got Draper more attention than he might have wanted. In a period when the FBI were cracking down on the practice of phreaking, the article only gave them a target, and they arrested him on toll fraud charges in 1972. Draper recalls the incident, as quoted in a 1977 article by Steve Long:
Something went wrong with my car, so I pulled off to the side of the freeway. Just then, two cars pulled in front and in back of me, and two cars screeched to a halt on either side of my car. Ten or twelve FBI agents jumped out of the cars and said, ‘You’re under arrest!’ I was later charged with violation of Title 18. Section 1343, of the U.S. Code, fraud by wire, a felony. The agents interrogated me for three hours in the back seat of an FBI car. At the same time, they had broken into my house and were taking photos of everything in sight. They confiscated a cassette recorder with tapes of Blue Box tones, my address book, which I never got back, and a broken Blue Box. They asked me who I knew, and how long I had been a phone phreak. All I said was that I wanted to call an attorney. Eventually, they took me to the county jail, where I was finally released on my own recognizance. A few months later, I copped a plea, pleaded nolo contendere and got five years probation and a $1,000 fine.
It wasn’t all bad news for Draper during this period, however. Although he was sentenced to five years probation, the Esquire magazine feature also brought him to the attention of another, more sympathetic, party.
Apple And The Blue Box
Steve Wozniak met Steve Jobs in the spring of 1971, taking a year to work and earn money before starting on his third year of college. It was when he was starting back at his classes again when the pair both heard about John Draper — who they knew only as Captain Crunch. Finding out about the weird and wonderful world of phone phreaking, the pair who later were to revolutionise the world of computing became determined to track Crunch down. Eventually it was one of Wozniak’s friends who let the two in on the secret of Draper’s real name, even directing them to the radio station where he worked at the time. From Wozniak’s account of meeting Draper:
The evening of Crunch’s visit to my dorm (room 110, Norton Hall) was one of the most anxious days of my life. I had built him up all over our dorm and campus as this incredible hero who turned the tables on the largest companies in the world. My vision of Draper was that of a suave socially adept guy, which may have been right in terms of judging others against myself. The person showing up at my dorm room was disheveled and unclean and missing teeth and not the person I had expected. He saw my surprise and announced “I am HE, Captain Crunch.”
Before Apple existed, Wozniak and Jobs formed a business together manufacturing and selling blue boxes. They both claim that working together on this early venture was crucial to the eventual success of Apple, which they went on to form together in 1976. “I don’t think there would ever have been an Apple Computer had there not been blue-boxing,” Jobs said in an interview many years later. The company’s first product — the Apple I — was not a computer as we know it today, but rather a kit which was sold as an assembled motherboard, leaving the owners to add other features of their own such as a keyboard or a monitor. This early personal computer, Wozniak claims, was inspired by his first meeting at the informal Homebrew Computer Club — where Draper was also a member.
That wasn’t the end of Draper’s collaboration with Apple, however. By the time Apple was founded, the telephone monopoly in the USA had been broken up, meaning that third-party companies could finally create devices that connected to the public phone lines. Deciding that the incumbent Apple II needed to have this capability, Wozniak reached out to the only expert on phone technology that he knew — John Draper.
As an independent contractor for Apple, Draper created a telephone interface board for the Apple II computer that he called the “Charlie Board”. This board had the ability to identify phone signals and lines — including ones that made free calls. While the Charlie Board was never put on the market — partly due to Jobs’ dislike and distrust of Draper and partly due to suppression by the phone companies who would have needed to be involved — the same technology used would later be integrated into tone-activated calling menus, voice mail and other similar technology. Below, you can see a 1978 interview with Draper where he demonstrates some of the software he had written for the Apple II computer — although it gives more of an insight into Draper’s interesting personality than the actual computer.
Programming Behind Bars
Draper ended up serving two prison sentences for phone fraud, despite the care with which he conducted himself after the FBI caught up with him in 1971. In 1979 — whilst serving a third prison sentence — Draper set to creating the EasyWriter, the first word processor for the Apple II. Even while serving his sentence he had access to a computer at a small studio, though sometimes needed to take copies of his work ‘home’ to prison, so he could continue working on it.
Thanks to the development of the popular Visicalc spreadsheet on the Apple II, it was becoming the go-to computer for business use. At this time, the EasyWriter was the only business quality word processor on the market, and Draper ended up making quite a bit of money off his prison project. He even beat out Bill Gates on the bid for the IBM contract, porting the EasyWriter to the IBM PC in what was a lucrative deal for Draper.
Draper continued developing software in later years, taking his last corporate position with Autodesk in the late 1980s to help develop their 3D graphic design systems. After finishing up with Autodesk in 1989, Draper resumed his nomadic lifestyle, developing websites and writing code in Australia and India, amongst other places. He later developed products for computer security company ShopIP — which was the first company to hire hackers as security consultants. There, he created an OpenBSD based firewall, called the CrunchBox GE.
Not Your Average Hacker
These days, Draper is still hacking and developing software, along with appearing as a speaker at a number of enthusiast events. He doesn’t think much of the modern breed of hackers, however — “Hacking eventually turned into activism, using hacking for political means,” he said in a 2012 interview with Venture Village. “Anonymous have their own political views about what they think is right or wrong and, as far as I’m concerned, everyone has the right to express their views. But I don’t really think they should have done what they did. I think they were a little bit too blatant. It’s like stirring up the hornet’s nest. It’s not a good thing to do, especially when you’re dealing with the government.”
Hacking has certainly changed since his days. Early hackers were the enthusiasts and homebrewers of their time, interested in finding out how things worked and how they could be used differently — far from the ‘script-kiddies’ of the modern internet environment who use small scripts to irritate and inconvenience other users. For him, Draper says, hacking is non-destructive, and should be more about learning how to use computers and what you can do with them.
For now, Draper continues to be active on social media and his own website, and as always is involved in many and varied projects around the world — including, apparently, working on a book. After years of being in and out of trouble with the law, he mainly wants to keep a low profile, which for Draper actually means being open about what he’s doing with himself: “The more open I am, I think the better off I am. I want the authorities to know where I am. If they know where I am, they’re going to leave me alone.”
These Are Your Numbers is a new Lifehacker series where we profile great minds that have made significant contributions to robotics and computing.
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