When you think of computer hackers, you probably imagine sophisticated computer programmers, using high-tech machines to break through multi-million-dollar firewalls to gain access to the world’s best-kept secrets. If that is your concept of hacking, you might be surprised at the surprisingly-low-tech tool used by one of the world’s most famous hackers.
John Draper learned about electronics while serving in the US Air Force. He took that knowledge and a prize from a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal to outsmart one of the biggest companies in the world. The unlikely tool that aided him in hacking was a simple plastic bosun’s whistle.
Draper discovered that the tone emitted by the whistle precisely simulated a signal that could bypass AT&T’s analog system, allowing him to make long-distance calls at no charge (as he demonstrates on this video). Draper’s use of this technique became public, inspired many other hackers and earned him the nickname “Captain Crunch.”
One of the hackers who was inspired by Draper’s antics was a 20-year-old Berkeley student by the name of Steve Wozniak. He read an Esquire article about the phenomenon and was so excited by what he read that he immediately placed a call to his 17-year-old friend Steve Jobs. Within an hour, the two of them were on their way to the library at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center to get all the information they could about the workings of the telephone. Later that day, the due purchased analog tone generator kits from a local electronics store and tried their hand at replicating Draper’s work.
Wozniak continued to work to refine their initial project. By early 1972 he developed his own digital hacking device. Although Wozniak and Jobs would go on to create Apple Computers, Wozniak said of this early device, “I have never designed a circuit I was prouder of.”
He also attributed his success with Apple to his early hacking schemes. “I don’t think there would ever have been an Apple Computer had there not been blue-boxing,” Jobs later commented in an interview.