John Draper and the Captain Crunch Whistle

John Draper, also known as “Captain Crunch,” is a legendary figure in the history of computer hacking. He gained notoriety in the 1970s for his ability to make free long-distance phone calls using a toy whistle that came with a box of Captain Crunch cereal.

The whistle emitted a tone at 2600 Hz, the same frequency AT&T’s long-distance phone network used to indicate that a line was idle and ready to accept a call.

Draper discovered that he could manipulate the network and make free phone calls by blowing the whistle into a phone receiver. He and his fellow “phone phreaks” became adept at manipulating the phone system, using various techniques to make calls without paying.

Analog Phones

In the original analog networks, short-distance telephone calls were completed by sending relatively high-power electrical signals through the wires to the end office, which then switched the call. For long-distance telephone calls, the Bell System used a selection of tones sent over the trunks to control the system. In addition to dialing instructions, the system also included a number of other tones that represented various commands or statuses. 2600 Hz, the key to early phone phreaking, was the frequency of the tone sent by the long-distance switch indicating that the user had gone on-hook (hung up the phone). This normally resulted in the remote switch also going on the hook, freeing the trunk for other uses. In order to make free lines easy to find, the 2600 Hz tone was continually played into free trunks. If the tone was sent manually by the local user into the phone line, it would trigger the remote switch to go on-hook, but critically, the local switch knew he was still off-hook because that was signaled electrically, not by the tone (which their local switch ignored). The system was now in an inconsistent state, leaving the local user connected to an operational long-distance trunk line. With further experimentation, the phone phreaks learned the rest of the signals needed to dial on the remote switch.

John Draper was born March 11, 1943, and is the son of a United States Air Force engineer. As a child, he built a home radio station from discarded military components. Draper enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1964. While stationed in Alaska, he helped his fellow service members make free phone calls home by devising access to a local telephone switchboard. In 1967, while stationed at Charleston Air Force Station in Maine, he created WKOS (W-“chaos”), a pirate radio station in nearby Dover-Foxcroft, but shut it down after a legally-licensed radio station, WDME, objected.

Draper heard about the whistle from other phreakers. In Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak’s words, the whistle easily played at 2600Hz, the perfect tone to, “seize a phone line.” Though many phreakers used instruments for the same purpose, the mass-produced whistle became iconic. Draper became known for using it, and gave himself the nickname “Captain Crunch.” He even built devices, called “blue boxes,” to replicate that tone and other useful ones.

Whistle Fact

The whistles are considered collectible souvenirs of a bygone era, and the magazine 2600: The Hacker Quarterly is named after the audio frequency.

After a story about blue boxes was published in Esquire in 1971, the then-college student Wozniak and his friend Steve Jobs tracked Draper down to learn all they could. (Though Wozniak admired Draper, he was intimidated by his intense energy, disheveled state, and many missing teeth.)

The boxes could also be used for mischief. Wozniak tried to prank-call the pope, while Draper boasted that he once got President Nixon on the horn. Jobs and Wozniak’s first joint-business venture was selling blue boxes to aspiring phreakers. “I don’t think there would ever have been an Apple Computer had there not been blue-boxing,” Jobs later commented in an interview.

Captain Crunch himself has swung between fame and infamy—Draper spent time in jail for toll fraud, but later also wrote software used by IBM and Apple. Today, both Cap’n Crunch whistles and blue boxes are historical objects.

A collection of the whistles are displayed at the Telephone Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts, while the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, has one of Wozniak’s handmade blue boxes. Though thousands of miles apart, both physically and technologically, they’re reminders of the connections between hacking, computing, and cereal.

“Beyond the Little Blue Box: The Biographical Adventures of John T Draper (Aka Captain Crunch). Notorious ‘Phone Phreak’, Legendary Internet Pioneer and Ardent Privacy Advocate” is a book about this whole story written by John T Draper and C Wilson Fraser. Featuring a foreword by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and cameos by the who’s who of early computing, this Kerouacian journey gives us an inside look at the birth of modern computing through the eyes of one of its most influential pioneers.

Draper’s expertise in phone hacking led to his involvement in the development of the first personal computer, the Altair 8800, in the mid-1970s. He wrote software for the machine and helped to popularize it among early computer enthusiasts. Today, John Draper remains a respected figure in the world of computer security and hacking. He has spoken at numerous conferences and has been featured in documentaries and other media.

Further Reading

  • The Telephone Museum
  • Atlas Obscura
  • Lapsley, Phil. “Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell.” Grove Press, 2013.
  • Levy, Steven. “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.” Penguin Books, 2010.
  • “John Draper (computer programmer).” Wikipedia, Accessed 10 Apr. 2023.
  • Amazon

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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