The week of December 6, 2015

The winding, telephonic odyssey of Joybubbles, the original phone phreak

By Jesse Hicks

When Joybubbles died in 2007, his New York Times obituary called him the “Peter Pan of phone hackers.” And that phrase neatly summed up his life: Born Joe Engressia Jr., through his restless and relentless exploration he’d become a seminal figure in the early culture of what came to be known as “phone phreaking.” Blind from birth, at an early age he’d learned that just by whistling he could make ordinary telephones obey him. That was in the 1950s; he may have been the first person to whistle his way down the labyrinthine passages of that proto-Internet, the global telephone system.

He whistled his way into a kind of minor infamy; when his telephonic wizardry caught the authorities’ attention, first came the legal threats, then the media coverage, including Associated Press reports and a profile in Esquire. Already respected by fellow phreakers, he became the go-to for would-bes and wannabes as well. And he was a good first contact, because he never kept any secrets. He even turned his phreaking into a career, working for a small telephone companyat least for a little while.

In broad outline, that’s the “phone hacker” part of his story. But there’s that “Peter Pan” part, too: how Joe Engressia decided that he’d never really had a childhood—had been robbed of it, really. Gifted with a high IQ and a demanding mother, he’d been forced too soon into adulthood, and though he found friends and fulfillment whistling through the phone system, he wanted to reclaim the youthful innocence he’d never gotten to experience. So he rejected his adulthood, saying that instead he would remain 5 years old forever. And instead of being called Joe Engressia, he changed his name to Joybubbles.

Rachael Morrison read the New York Times obituary. She’d never heard of Joybubbles or phone phreakers, but she was fascinated by the life limned in little less than 800 words. It was a window on a hidden, even forgotten, world, one inhabited by teenage electronics whizzes and blind network maestros.They had free rein in the closest thing that existed to a worldwide web of connectivity; they’d call friends around the world for free, or bounce a call through a half-dozen nodes just because they could, then listen to the satisfyingly analog sounds of far-flung network machines doing their bidding.

“The phone phreaks were [the] first hackers,” Morrison says, “the first people who were hacking a big network, which was the telephone network.”

In 2011, she began producing a documentary about Joybubbles, interviewing people who’d known him, from famous phone phreaker Captain Crunch to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. As a young man tinkering with electronics, Woz had heard the stories of blind phone phreaks infiltrating the phone system. He thought these must be tall tales, but once he learned the truth, he was in awe of their dedication. They were obsessive in exploring a massive network that everyone used but few truly understood. And that was their craft: exploration. “These were heroes to me,” he told Morrison during an interview. “They were far beyond what I could ever be in my life, but what I wanted to be.”

Joybubbles came to phreaking early. He was born blind in 1949; his sister was born two years later, also blind, though it’s unclear what may have caused both siblings to be born without sight. He had a difficult upbringing according to Morrison, with an abusive father. He was smart, though, and his mother, Esther, encouraged him to channel his curiosity into learning.

When he was four or five, she showed him how to dial the number for the time and weather. He’d call and listen to the disembodied voice. Soon enough he was dialing other numbers, figuring out how the system worked. More importantly, he discovered a key to the whole network: the 2,600 hertz tone. And he could whistle it.

In the days of analog phone systems, a set of tones was used to control the network, telling all the connections what to do. The 2,600 hertz tone—a seventh-octave E—was a kind of master switch. Whistling it opened up the entire network to him; he was inside it, able to explore at will. If he wanted free calls, he’d simply call an 800-number or directory assistance, then whistle the tone. His call would disconnect, but he was still on the line in a kind of limbo. He could whistle his way to another number, and it was as though he’d simply made the initial, free call. He could do this multiple times, making intricate connections that might bounce him across the continent, only to ring a nearby friend.

Exploring the phone network was a way to escape his disability, says Morrison. He wasn’t the only one, though; he wasn’t even the only blind phreak wandering through Ma Bell‘s uncharted realms. He soon found the others, and they’d share information on party lines. Phil Lapsley interviewed Joybubbles for his book, Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. He says Joybubbles always had a code when it come to keeping secrets: He wouldn’t. Anything he learned, or anything he was told, he’d offer to others. “Knowledge shared is knowledge expanded,” is how he put it to Lapsley.

Joybubbles was known to the small community of phreakers, but it wasn’t until he went to college that both he and the practice of phreaking garnered wider attention. In 1968, he enrolled at the University of South Florida. He had trouble making friends, so, as Morrison tells it, he told another student that he could whistle free telephone calls. At first, of course, they didn’t believe him, but soon he had a whole group gathered around him. For a dollar he’d call anywhere in the United States.

One day, though, he whistled the wrong number. Instead of speaking to Long Island, he found himself talking to an operator in Montreal. She put his call through, but, suspicious, stayed on the line. She heard one of his customers raving about the blind guy who’d whistled the call for free. When she confronted the student, Joybubbles was ratted out. The school was notified, and the phone company considered pressing charges.

It was a big deal. His story was covered by the student newspaper, then the local newspaper, and then the Associated Press. Pretty soon he was dubbed “The Whistler.” Under the media glare, the phone company decided not to press chargesit seemed like a bad PR move to prosecute a young, blind student.

It was a victory and one of the first big stories about the previously underground world of phone phreaking. “I know a lot of other people who were phone phreaks ended up contacting him because they read about him in the paper,” says Morrison. It also brought him to the attention of an Esquire editor, who assigned the story to Ron Rosenbaum. The resulting article, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” profiled the eclectic community of phone phreakers, bringing a whole new wave of mainstream attention. (It was Rosenbaum’s article, incidentally, that reportedly inspired Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to begin making blue boxes, the devices that mimicked Joybubbles’ whistling.)

“In the end,” Morrison says, “it was a really positive experience for him, because he learned there were other phone phreaks.”

But, she says, Rosenbaum’s article really blew up the scene. Things got a little out of control. Joybubbles had devoted himself to exploration; he wasn’t in it to rip off the phone companies out of any political or monetary motive. He was just fascinated by the electronic playground they’d unwittingly built for him. In fact, he’d be happy to work for them.

That didn’t seem likely, and he had trouble finding regular work. He walked away from college a few semesters shy of graduation, apparently because it no longer interested him. He moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and was able to live on his own. He collected disability. But it wasn’t what he wanted. He came up with a crazy scheme. “So he was purposely sloppy about hacking into the phone,” Morrison says, “and he got caught, and he was arrested. He went to jail for one night,” though he eventually received a suspended sentence. He was seen as blind and experimenting, rather than a dangerous criminal.

It’s a familiar trope: brilliant hacker hired by industry he’s hacked, because they recognize his genius. There’s always been an element of wish-fulfillment in that story, but in Joybubbles’ case it actually worked. He started working for a small local telephone company.

Day-to-day reality, though, wasn’t what he dreamed. According to Lapsley, he had a desk with some phones on it, and a small network to test. For someone who’d roamed far and wide, whistling his way across continents, it must have been stifling. He was smart and capable, but there was little for him to do. He clashed with his bossnothing major, but the kinds of things that might frustrate a certain kind of genius stuck in the wrong job.

“I don’t know if I’d say he was impetuous,” says Lapsley, “but he was the kind of guy who was willing to say ‘I don’t agree with this,’ and he’d walk away.”

Eventually he was fired, though the parting was amiable. He later told Lapsley, “I was just happy. I said, I’m gonna go and celebrate! ‘Cause I had kind of wanted to get out of there, but I didn’t have the nerve to quit, because I knew once I did I’d have to move and everything.”

He tried another telephone job but ran into similar problems. He decided to move to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he lived the last 25 years of his life. “I think the telephone was less interesting to him as time went on,” says Morrison.

As telephones transitioned into the digital age, it became impossible to whistle your way around the world. Lapsley points out that two big technological shifts occurred in the ’80s and ’90s: the personal computer and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which essentially turns phone calls into a function of software. Some phreakers embraced the new technology, but not Joybubbles.

“He never really had any interest in computers as far as I can tell,” says Lapsley. “People tried to get him to use computers and it just wasn’t anything he was interested in doing anything with.”

While still extremely capable with telephones, he didn’t have the same access he once did. And, Lapsley notes, sometimes people just drift away from certain interests. “I think he started focusing on different things,” says Morrison, “and taking on new obsessions, which was sort of an obsession with himself and with a new identity.”

He legally changed his name to Joybubbles in 1991, declaring himself 5 years old forever. The name had come to him earlier, as Lapsley recounts in Exploding the Phone. He attended a spiritual retreat in 1986 and was asked to choose a new name for the week. He later told a reporter: “Suddenly it got around to me and I said, ‘Joybubbles.’ It was like a breath. You just felt the rightness of it. . . . I guess because it conjures up in my mind joyful feelings.”

He said he remembered that as a child he’d been sexually abused at a blind school in New Jersey. Going to school too early, he said, had made him feel like he couldn’t just play like the other kids, as though his intelligence made him too smart for mere play. So he resolved to have a childhood, and began to fill his apartment with toys.

As strange as it may sound, Lapsley recalls interviewing him in the years before his death. “People told me he wanted to be 5 years old forever,” he says. “I didn’t deal with that at all. It may be because he was talking about stuff from the past, but he came off as perfectly normal to me.”

Perhaps it was just another unpredictable turn in the idiosyncratic life of a blind phone phreak who’d insisted on making his own way. Joybubbles, né Joe Engressia Jr., died in his home at the age of 58 of congestive heart failure, remembered both as a technological genius and as a man who’d decided to never grow up.

Photo via Whistle Productions